ART 3181, Postmodernism and Art, 1979-2000, Prof. Fitzpatrick
Instructions for synopsis (worth 10%) on Hal Foster’s essay “Obscene,
Abject, Traumatic,” Winter session, 2020 due Feb. 26. 700-750 words for
the synopsis without the endnotes or footnotes. Do a word count and indicate
it. 14 point font, double-spaced, with footnotes or end notes in 12 point font.
Correct and complete bibliographic reference of the publication must be provided
as a foot-note, endnote, or parenthetical reference (this is the recommended format)
with a separate section at the end of the synopsis for Work(s) Cited the first time
you mention the essay at hand in your assignment. For all subsequent references,
the footnote or end-note or parenthetical reference must be condensed. See U.
Ottawa SASS website Writing area for style guide formats, such as MLA or
Chicago so you know how a full citation and how CONDENSED citations should
Instructions: Identify the key themes the author is explaining, the theoretical
sources upon which he or she is relying (the secondary sources), the author’s
central hypothesis/hypotheses, points they are trying to argue and prove, and/or
original statement(s), and the key artworks or figures discussed as examples (if
any). Summarize what the author is trying to achieve, demonstrate, and say. Do not
fill the entire synopsis with citations because the point is to learn to summarize
long and complex essays in your own words in a concise manner. In your
introductory statements describing the author’s essay, summarize the significant
hypothesis/hypotheses or critical goal(s) sought or presented by the author from a
broad perspective. Start with the describing “big picture” views of the essay,
contextualising it art-historically, historically, socially, and politically (if possible),
and then address particular details. Quoting more than one or two key passages
from the text is not advised. Citing a few very brief key phrases is O.K. but in very
limited amounts. Make sure to mention the artists and artworks discussed by the
author (if any) and the author’s point for doing so.
Avoid summarizing every section of the essay in a point-by-point re-telling, as this
makes for an absolutely boring read, is quite easy to do as a writer, and is not the
point. Avoid, “And then Foster goes on to….,” because this makes the reader of
YOUR synopsis seem to have to read the initial text in real-time, and it makes the
primary text (Foster) sound incredibly tedious. We want a summary of the goals
and achievements of the essay, with salient highlights, not a point by point retelling. Rather, start with a broad overview identifying the key critical and
theoretical offerings or problem identified by author, and then move on to identify
key moments in the text that drive the goal forward, including mentioning the
theoretical and art historical examples provided by the initial author (those are the
The reader wants to hear what you identify as the author’s thesis and how you
articulate and interpret this thesis in your own words. Articulate the author’s ideas
in your own words, but give recognition of the critical views and research done by
the author at every turn, by stating frequently, “According to Foster,” or “As Butler
argues,” etc. . . .. Avoid the phrase, “Fosster talks about. . .” because in a
publication, the author is writing not talking.
Note. Because you are frequently stating the name of the author in your statements,
you need only provide the page number in your reference at the end of the sentence
when the author’s name is already stated or obvious, i.e.: According to Butler, . . .
(p. 39). You don’t need to state the author’s name again in your parenthetical
reference, i.e. the following is wrong: According to Butler. . . . (Butler, p. 39).
Repeating the name of the author in the parenthetical reference is unnecessary. The
point of citations is to be as accurate but also as brief as possible, avoiding any
Obscene, Abject, Traumatic
Author(s): Hal Foster
Source: October, Vol. 78 (Autumn, 1996), pp. 106-124
Published by: The MIT Press
Accessed: 02/01/2010 13:39
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Obscene, Abject, Traumatic*
In contemporary art and theory, let alone in contemporary fiction and film,
there is a general shift in conceptions of the real: from the real understoodas an effect
to the real understoodas an event of trauma.There are several ways to
think about this shift, yet as it bespeaks a pervasive turn to psychoanalysis in critical
culture, I want to graph it here in its terms-specifically in relation to the Lacanian
discussion of the gaze in TheFourFundamentalConceptsof Psychoanalysis.
This is a notorious text, of course, much cited but little understood (so little
that I will risk another resum6). For example, there may well be a male gaze, and
no doubt capitalist spectacle is constructed from a masculinist perspective, but
there is little brief for such arguments in this seminar of Lacan. For here the
gaze is not embodied in a subject at all, at least not in the first instance. To an
extent like Sartre in Being and Nothingness (1943), Lacan distinguishes between
the look (or the eye) and the gaze, and to an extent like Merleau-Ponty in The
Phenomenologyof Perception(1945), he locates this gaze in the world.As with language
in Lacan, then, so with the gaze: it preexists the subject, who, “looked at from all
sides,” is but a “stain” in “the spectacle of the world.”‘ Thus positioned, the
Lacanian subject feels the gaze as a threat, as if it queried him or her, and so it is
that “the gaze, qua objeta, may come to symbolize this central lack expressed in the
phenomenon of castration” (77).
Even more than Sartre and Merleau-Ponty, then, Lacan challenges the
presumed transparency of the subject in sight. His account of the gaze mortifies
this subject, especially so in the famous anecdote of the sardine can. Afloat on
the sea and aglint in the sun, this can seems to look at the young Lacan in the
fishing boat “at the level of the point of light, the point at which everything
that looks at me is situated” (95). Thus seen as (s)he sees, pictured as (s)he pictures,
This very partial lexicon of contemporary art and theory is extrapolated from The Return of the
Real (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996), where a much more complete discussion of these terms can be
Jacques Lacan, The Four FundamentalConceptsof Psychoanalysis,trans. Alan Sheridan (New York:
W. W. Norton, 1978), pp. 72, 75; all subsequent references in the text.
OCTOBER78, Fall 1996, pp. 107-24. ? 1996 Hal Foster.
(Burnt to Death III). 1992.
subject is fixed in a double position, and this leads Lacan to
the usual cone of vision that emanates from the subject
another cone that emanates from the object, at the point of light. It is this
regard that he calls the gaze.
Point of light
The subject of representation
The first cone is familiar from Renaissance treatises on perspective: the
object focused as an image for the subject at a geometral point of viewing. But,
Lacan adds immediately, “I am not simply that punctiform being located at the
geometral point from which the perspective is grasped. No doubt, in the depths
of my eye, the picture is painted. The picture, certainly, is in my eye. But I, I am in
the picture” (96).2 That is, the subject is also under the regard of the object,
(as it were) by its light, pictured by its gaze: thus the superphotographed
imposition of the two cones, with the object also at the point of the light (now
called the gaze), the subject also at the point of the picture (now called the subject
of representation), and the image also in line with the screen.
Curiously, the Sheridan translation adds a “not” (“But I am not in the picture”) where the original
reads “Mais moi, je suis dans le tableau” (Seminar XI [Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1973], p. 89). This
addition has abetted the mistaking of the place of the subject mentioned in the next note. Lacan is
clear enough on this point; e.g., “the first [triangular system] is that which, in the geometral field, puts
in our place the subject of representation, and the second is that which turns meinto a picture” (105).
The meaning of this last term, the screen, is obscure. I understand it to
stand for the cultural reserve of which every image is one instance. Call it the
the codes of visual culture,
conventions of art, the schemata of representation,
this screen mediates the object-gaze for the subject. But it also protects the subject
from this object-gaze, for it captures the gaze, “pulsatile, dazzling and spread out”
(89), and tames it in an image.3 This last formulation is crucial. For Lacan, animals
are caught in the gaze of the world; they are only on display there. Humans
are not so reduced to this “imaginary capture” (103), for we have access to the
this case to the screen as the site of picture-making and viewing,
where we can manipulate and moderate the gaze. In this way the screen allows
the subject, at the point of the picture, to behold the object, at the point of light.
Otherwise it would be impossible, for to see without this screen would be to be
blinded by the gaze or touched by the real.
Thus, even as the gaze may trap the subject, the subject may tame the
gaze. This is the function of the screen: to negotiate a laying down of the gaze as
in a laying down of a weapon. Note the atavistic tropes of preying and taming,
battling and negotiating; the gaze is given a strange agency here, and the subject
is positioned in a paranoid way.4 Indeed, Lacan imagines the gaze not only as
maleficent but as violent, a force that can arrest, even kill, if it is not disarmed
Some readers place the subject in the position of the screen, perhaps on the basis of this
statement: “And if I am anything in the picture, it is always in the form of the screen, which I earlier
called the stain, the spot” (97). The subject is a screen in the sense that, looked at from all sides, (s)he
blocks the light of the world, casts a shadow, is a “stain” (paradoxically, it is this screening that permits
the subject to see at all). But this screen is different from the image-screen, and to place the subject
only there is to contradict the superimposition of the two cones wherein the subject is both viewer and
picture. The subject is an agent of the image-screen, not one with it. In my reading, then, the gaze is
not already semiotic, as it is for Norman Bryson in 7Traditionand Desire: From David to Delacroix
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984). In some respects his account improves on Lacan,
who, through Merleau-Ponty, renders the gaze almost animistic. Yet to read the gaze as already semiotic may be to tame it before the fact, and indeed, for Bryson, it is the gaze that is benign, “a luminous
plenitude,” and the screen that “mortifies” rather than protects the subject (“The Gaze in the
Expanded Field,” in Visionand Visuality,ed. Hal Foster [Seattle: Bay Press, 1988], p. 92).
In “The Gaze in the Expanded Field” Bryson argues that, however threatened by the gaze, the
subject of the gaze is also confirmed by its very alterity. (On paranoia as the last refuge of the subject,
see Leo Bersani, The Cultureof Redemption[Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990], pp. 179-99.)
As Bryson notes, other models of visuality are also tinged with paranoia-the male gaze, surveillance,
spectacle, simulation, and so on. What produces this paranoia, and what might it serve-that is,
besides this paradoxical in/security of the subject?
On the atavism of the nexus of gaze, prey, and paranoia, consider this remark of Philip K. Dick:
“Paranoia, in some respects, I think, is a modern-day development of an ancient, archaic sense that
animals still have-quarry-type animals-that they’re being watched. … I say paranoia is an atavistic
sense. It’s a lingering sense, that we had long ago, when we were-our ancestors were-very vulnerable
to predators, and this sense tells them they’re being watched. And they’re being watched probably by
something that’s going to get them. … And often my characters have this feeling. But what really I’ve
done is, I have atavised their society. That although it’s set in the future, in many ways they’re livingthere is a retrogressive quality in their lives, you know? They’re living like our ancestors did. I mean,
the hardware is in the future, the scenery’s in the future, but the situations are really from the past”
(extract from a 1974 interview used as an epigraph to The CollectedStoriesof Philip K. Dick,vol. 2 [New
York:Carol Publishing, 1990]).
first.5 At its more urgent, then, picture-making is apotropaic: its gestures (think
of Expressionist painting) are made to arrest the gaze before the gaze can arrest
us. At its more “Apollonian” (101), picture-making is placating: its perfections
(think of Neoclassical painting) are intended to pacify the gaze, to “relax” the
viewer from its grip. Such is aesthetic contemplation according to Lacan: some
art may attempt a trompe l’oeil, a tricking of the eye, but all art aspires to a
dompte-regard, a taming of the gaze.
I want to suggest that much contemporary art refuses this age-old mandate
to pacify the gaze, to unite the imaginary and the symbolic against the real. It is as
if this art wanted the gaze to shine, the objectto stand, the real to exist, in all the glory (or the
horror) of its pulsatile desire, or at least to evoke this sublime condition. To this end it
moves not only to attack the image but to tear at the screen, or to suggest that it is
already torn. This shift from the image-screen, the focus of most postmodernist art
in the 1980s, to the object-gaze, the focus of most postmodernist art in the 1990s,
is registered most clearly in the art of Cindy Sherman. Indeed, if we divide her
work into three rough groups, it almost seems to move across the three main
positions of the Lacanian diagram.
In her early work of 1975-82, from the film stills through the rearprojections to the centerfolds and the color tests, Sherman evokes the subject
under the gaze, the subject-as-picture, which is also the principal site of other
feminist work in appropriation art. Her subjects see, of course, but they are
much more seen,captured by the gaze. Often, in the film stills and the centerfolds,
this gaze seems to come from another subject, with whom the viewer may be
implicated; sometimes, in the rear projections, it seems to come from the spectacle
of the world; yet sometimes, too, it seems to come from within. Here Sherman
shows her female subjects as self-surveyed, not in phenomenological reflexivity
(I see myself seeing myself) but in psychological
(I am not what I
imagined myselfto be). Thus in the distance between the made-up woman and her
mirrored face in UntitledFilm Still #2 (1977), Sherman points to the gap between
imagined and actual body-images that yawns within each of us, the gap of
Lacan relates this maleficent gaze to the evil eye, which he sees as an agent of disease and death,
with the power to blind and to castrate: “It is a question of dispossessing the evil eye of the gaze, in
order to ward it off. The evil eye is the fascinum [spell], it is that which has the effect of arresting
movement and, literally, of killing life…. It is precisely one of the dimensions in which the power of the
gaze is exercised directly” (118). For Lacan the evil eye is universal, and no equivalent beneficent eye
exists, not even in the Bible. Yet much Christian art is fixed on the gazes of the Madonna upon the
Child and the Child upon us. Typically, Lacan focuses instead on the exemplum of envy in Saint
Augustine, who tells of his murderous feelings of exclusion at the sight of his little brother at the maternal breast: “Such is true envy-the envy that makes the subject pale before the image of a completeness
closed upon itself, before the idea that the petita, the separated a from which he is hanging, may be for
another the possession that gives satisfaction” (116). Here Lacan can be contrasted with Walter
Benjamin, who imagines the gaze as auratic and replete, from within the dyad of mother and child,
rather than as anxious and invidious, from the position of the excluded third. Indeed, in Benjamin one
discovers the beneficent eye that Lacan denies, a magical gaze that implicitly reverses fetishism and
undoes castration, a redemptive aura based on the memory of a primal relationship with the maternal
body. For more on this distinction, see my CompulsiveBeauty(Cambridge: MIT Press, 1993), pp. 193-205.
CindySherman.Untitled Film Still #2.
(mis)recognition that we attempt to fill with fashion models and entertainment
images every day and every night of our lives.
In her middle work of 1983-90, from the fashion photographs through the
fairy-tale illustrations and the art-history portraits to the disaster pictures,
Sherman moves to the image-screen, to its repertoire of representations. (This is a
matter of focus only: she addresses the image-screen in the early work too, and the
subject-as-picture hardly disappears in this middle work.) The fashion and art
history series take up two files from the image-screen that have affected our
self-fashionings profoundly. Here Sherman parodies vanguard design with a long
runway of fashion victims, and pillories art history with a long gallery of butt-ugly
aristocrats (in ersatz Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, and Neoclassical types). But
the play turns perverse when, in some fashion photographs, the gap between
imagined and actual body-images becomes psychotic (one or two sitters seem to
have no ego awareness at all) and when, in some art history photographs,
deidealization is pushed to the point of desublimation: with scarred sacks for
breasts and funky carbuncles for noses, these bodies break down the upright lines
of proper representation, indeed of proper subjecthood.6
This turn to the grotesque is marked in her fairy-tale and disaster images,
Rosalind Krauss conceives this desublimation as an attack on the sublimated verticality of
the traditional art image in Cindy Sherman(New York: Rizzoli, 1993). She, too, discusses the work in
relation to the Lacanian diagram of visuality, albeit in a different way, as does Kaja Silverman in
Thresholdsof the Visible(New York: Routledge, 1996).
CindySherman.Untitled #224. 1990.
some of which show horrific accidents of birth and freaks of nature (a young
woman with a pig snout, a doll with the head of a dirty old man). Here, as often in
horror movies and bedtime stories alike, horror means, first and foremost, horror
of maternity, of the maternal body made strange, even repulsive, in repression.
This body is the primary site of the abjectas well, a category of (non)being defined
by Julia Kristeva as neither subject nor object, but before one is the first (before
full separation from the mother) or after one is the second (as a corpse given over
to objecthood).7 Sherman evokes these extreme conditions in some disaster
scenes suffused with signifiers of menstrual blood and sexual discharge, vomit and
shit, decay and death. Such images tend toward a representation of the body
turned inside out, of the subject literally abjected, thrown out. But this is also the
condition of the outside turned in, of the invasion of the subject-as-picture by the
object-gaze. At this point some images pass beyond the abject, which is often tied
to particular meanings, not only toward the informe,a condition described by
Bataille where significant form dissolves because the fundamental distinction
between figure and ground, self and other, is lost, but also toward the obscene,
where the object-gaze is presented as if therewereno scene to stage it, no frame of
to contain it, no screen.8
Or, rather, intimations of such conditions. See Julia Kristeva, Powersof Horror,trans. Leon S.
Roudiez (New York:Columbia University Press, 1982); all subsequent references in the text.
Regarding these differences, see “Conversation on the Informeand the Abject,” October67
(Winter 1993), and Rosalind Krauss, “Informewithout Conclusion” in this issue.
CindySherman.Untitled #190. 1989.
This is the domain of her work after 1991 as well, the civil war and sex pictures,
which are punctuated by close-ups of simulated damaged and/or dead body parts
and sexual and/or excretory body parts respectively. Sometimes the screen seems
so torn that the object-gaze not only invades the subject-as-picture but overwhelms
it. And in a few of the disaster and civil war images we glimpse what it might be
like to occupy the impossible third position in the Lacanian diagram, to behold
the pulsatile gaze, even to touch the obscene object, without a screen for protection.
In one image (Untitled #190) Sherman gives this evil eye a horrific visage of its
In this scheme of things the impulse to erode the subject and to tear at the
screen has driven Sherman from the early work, where the subject is caught in the
gaze, through the middle work, where it is invaded by the gaze, to the recent
work, where it is obliterated by the gaze. But this double attack on subject and
screen is not hers alone; it occurs on several fronts in contemporary art, where it
is waged, almost openly, in the service of the real.
“Obscene” does not mean “against the scene,” but it suggests an attack on
the scene of representation, on the image-screen. As such it also suggests a way to
understand the aggression against the visual so evident in contemporary art and
alternative culture-as an imagined rupture of the image-screen, an impossible
opening onto the real.9 For the most part, however, this aggression is thought
under the label of the abject, which has a different psychoanalytic valence.
According to the canonical definition of Kristeva, the abject is what I must
get rid of in order to be an I at all. It is a phantasmatic substance not only alien
to the subject but intimate with it-too much so in fact, and this overproximity
produces panic in the subject. In this way the abject touches on the fragility of
our boundaries, of the spatial distinction between our insides and outsides as
well as of the temporal passage between the maternal body and the paternal law.
Both spatially and temporally, then, abjection is a condition in which subjecthood
is troubled, “where meaning collapses” (2); hence its attraction for avant-garde
artists and writers who want to disturb these orderings of subject and society.
The notion is rich in ambiguities, on which the cultural-political valence of
abject art may depend.10 Some are familiar by now: Can the abject be represented
at all? If it is opposed to culture, can it be exposed in culture? If it is unconscious,
can it made conscious and remain abject? In other words, can there be a
conscientiousabjection,or is this all there can be? Indeed, can abject art ever escape
an instrumental, indeed moralistic, use of the abject?11
A crucial ambiguity in Kristeva is the slippage between the operation to abject
and the condition to be abject.For her the operation to abject is fundamental to
the maintenance of subjectivity and society, while the condition to be abject is
subversive of both formations. Is the abject, then, disruptive of subjective and
social orders or foundational of them, a crisis in these orders or a confirmation
of them? If subjectivity and society abject the alien within, is abjection not a
regulatory operation? That is, is abjection to regulation what transgression is to
This is manifest, for example, in the insistence on the factuality of the body as against the fantasy
of transcendence in spectacle, virtual reality, cyberspace, and the like-an insistence that, again, is very
different from the postmodernist delight in the image world where it was often assumed that the real
had succumbed to the simulacral.
The attack on the image-screen has assumed other guises in other periods; see, for example,
Louis Marin on the ambition of Caravaggio “to destroy painting” in To DestroyPainting (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1995). In this century this ambition is especially active in Dada and
decollage (where spectacle is targeted). Such antivisuality may be related to the paranoia of the gaze
A fundamental ambiguity is the relation of subject and society, the psychological and the
anthropological, the inside (as it were) and the outside. With her recourse to the work of Mary
Douglas (especially Purity and Danger) Kristeva tends to align, indeed to conflate, the two, with the
result that a disturbance of the one is automatically, traumatically, a disturbance of the other. This does
not contribute much to the political clarity of critiques of the subject nor the psychological clarity of
critiques of the social.
There are many readings of the Kristevan abject. For a critical elaboration, see Judith Butler,
Gender Trouble(New York: Routledge, 1990) and Bodies That Matter (New York: Routledge, 1993).
Kristeva tends to primordialize disgust; to map abjection onto homophobia may be to primordialize it
in turn. But then for many subjects both disgust and homophobia are primordial.
This points to a parallel question: Can there be an obscene representation that is not pornographic? Today it is important to insist on the difference, which might be thought along these lines:
The obscene is a paradoxical representation without a scene to stage the object so that it appears
too close to the viewer. The pornographic, on the other hand, is a conventional representation that
distances the object so that the viewer is safeguarded as a voyeur.
exceeding that is also a completing?12 Or can the condition of abjection
be mimed in a way that calls out, in order to disturb, the operation of abjection?
In her account of modernist writing, Kristeva views abjection as conservative,
even defensive. “Edged with the sublime” (11), the abject is used to test the limits
of sublimation, but the task remains to sublimate the abject, to purify it. Whether
or not one agrees with this account, Kristeva does intimate a cultural shift in our
own time. “In a world in which the Other has collapsed,” she states enigmatically,
the task of the artist is no longer to sublimate the abject, to elevate it, but to plumb
the abject, to fathom “the bottomless ‘primacy’ constituted by primal repression”
(18). In a world in which the Other has collapsed: Kristeva implies that the
paternal law that underwrites our social order is in crisis.13 In terms of the visuality
outlined here, this implies a crisis in the image-screen as well; and some artists
do attack it, while others, under the assumption that it is torn, probe behind it for
the obscene object-gaze of the real. Meanwhile, in terms of the abject, still other
artists explore the repressing of the maternal body said to underlie the symbolic
order so as to exploit the disruptive effects of its material and/or metaphorical
Obviously the condition of image-screen and symbolic order alike is allimportant; locally the valence of abject art also depends on it. If it is deemed
intact, then the attack on the image-screen retains a transgressive value. However,
if it is deemed torn, then such transgression is beside the point, and this old
vocation of the avant-garde is at an end. But there is a third option as well, and
that is to reformulate this vocation, to rethink transgression not as a rupture
produced by a heroic avant-garde posited outside the symbolic order, but as a
fracture traced by a strategic avant-garde positioned ambivalently within this
order.14 In this view the goal of the avant-garde is not to break with the symbolic
order absolutely (this old dream is dispelled), but to expose it in crisis, to register
its points not only of breakdown but of breakthrough, the new possibilities that
such a crisis opens up.
For the most part, however, abject art has tended in two other directions.
The first is to identify with the abject, to approach it somehow-to
wound of trauma, to touch the obscene object-gaze of the real. The second is to
“Transgressiondoes not deny the taboo,” runs the famous formulation of Bataille, “but transcends
and completes it.” Erotism:Death and Sensuality(1957), trans. Mary Dalwood (San Francisco: City Lights
Books, 1986), p. 63. There is a third option: that the abject is double and that its transgressive value is a
function of this ambiguity. (Bataille, no less than Freud, was drawn to such double, adialectical terms.)
But then when is it not? The notion of hegemony suggests that it is always under threat, if not
in crisis. In this regard the notion of the symbolic order may project more solidity than the social
Radical art and theory often celebrate failed figures, especially deviant masculinities, as
transgressive of the symbolic order, but this avant-gardist logic of an inside and an outside assumes
(affirms?) a stable order against which these figures are posed. In My Own Private Germany:Daniel
Paul Schreber’sSecretHistory of Modernity(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), Eric Santner
offers a brilliant rethinking of this logic: he relocates transgression within the symbolic order, at a
point of crisis, which he defines as “symbolic authority in a state of emergency.”
KikiSmith.Blood Pool. 1992.
(Photo: Ellen Page Wilson.)
represent the condition of abjection in order to provoke its operation-to catch
abjection in the act, to make it reflexive, even repellent in its own right. The
danger, of course, is that this mimesis may confirm a given abjection. Just as the
old transgressive Surrealist once called out for the priestly police, so an abject
artist (like Andres Serrano) may call out for an evangelical senator (like Jesse
Helms), who then completes the work, as it were, negatively. Moreover, as left and
right may agree on the social representatives of the abject, they may shore each
other up in a public exchange of disgust, and this spectacle may inadvertently
support the normativity of image-screen and symbolic order alike.15
These strategies of abject art are thus problematic, as they were in
Surrealism over sixty years ago. Surrealism also used the abject to test sublimation;
indeed, it claimed the point where desublimatory impulses confront sublimatory
imperatives as its own.16Yet it was at this point too that Surrealism broke down,
The obscene may have this effect too. Many contemporary images render the obscene thematic
and so safe, in the service of the screen, not against it-which is what most abject art does, against its
own wishes. Indeed, the obscene may be the ultimate apotropaic shield against the real-partaking of
it in order to protect against it.
“Everything tends to make us believe,” Breton wrote in the SecondManifestoof Surrealism(1930),
“that there exists a certain point of the mind at which life and death, the real and the imagined,
past and future, the communicable and the incommunicable, high and low, cease to be perceived as
contradictions. Now, search as one may one will never find any other motivating force in the activities
of the surrealists than the hope of finding and fixing this point” (in Manifestoesof Surrealism,trans.
Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane [Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1972], pp. 123-24).
Signal works of modernism emerge at this point between sublimation and desublimation (there are
AndresSerrano.Madonna and Child.
that it split into the two principal factions headed by Andre Breton and Georges
Bataille. According to Breton, Bataille was an “excrement-philosopher”
refused to rise above big toes, mere matter, sheer shit, to raise the low to the
high.17 For Bataille, Breton was a “juvenile victim” involved in an Oedipal game,
an “Icarian pose” assumed less to undo the law than to provoke its punishment:
despite his celebration of desire Breton was as committed to sublimation as the
next aesthete.18 Elsewhere Bataille termed this aesthetic lejeu des transpositions, the
game of substitutions, and he dismissed it as no match for the power of perversions: “I defy any amateur of painting to love a picture as much as a fetishist loves
examples in Picasso, Pollock, Twombly, Eva Hesse, many others). Perhaps they are so privileged
because we need the tension between the two or, more precisely, because we need this tension to be
treated, both incited and soothed, managed.
See Breton, Manifestoes of Surrealism,pp. 180-87. At one point Breton charges Bataille with
“psychasthenia” (more on which below).
See Georges Bataille, Visionsof Excess,trans. Allan Stoekl (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota
Press, 1985), pp. 39-40. For more on this opposition, see CompulsiveBeauty,pp. 110-14.
Bataille, “L’Espritmoderne et le jeu des transpositions,” Documents8 (1930). The best discussion
of Bataille on this score remains Denis Hollier, AgainstArchitecture,
trans. Betsy Wing (Cambridge: MIT
Press, 1989), especially pp. 98-115. Elsewhere Hollier has specified the fixed aspect of the abject
according to Bataille: “It is the subjectthat is abject. That is where his attack on metaphoricity comes in.
If you die, you die; you can’t have a substitute. What can’t be substituted is what binds subject and
abject together. It can’t simply be a substance. It has to be a substance that addresses a subject, that
puts it at risk, in a position from which it cannot move away” (“Conversation on the Informeand the
I recall this old opposition for the perspective that it offers on abject art
today. In a sense Breton and Bataille were both right, at least about each other.
Often Breton and company did act like juvenile victims who provoked the paternal law as if to ensure that it was still there-at
best in a neurotic
punishment, at worst in a paranoid demand for order. And this Icarian pose is
again assumed by contemporary artists who are almost too eager to talk dirty in
the museum, almost too ready to be tweaked by Hilton Kramer or spanked by
Jesse Helms. On the other hand, the Bataillean ideal-to opt for the smelly shoe
over the beautiful picture, to be fixed in perversion or stuck in abjection-is also
adopted by contemporary artists discontent not only with the refinements of
sublimation but with the displacements of desire. Is this, then, the option that
abject art offers us-Oedipal naughtiness or infantile perversion? To act dirty with
the secret wish to be spanked, or to wallow in shit with the secret faith that the
most defiled might reverse into the most sacred, the most perverse into the most
This mimesis of regression is pronounced in contemporary art. But, again,
it can also be a strategy of perversion-that is, of pere-version,of a turning from
the father that is a twisting of his law. In the early 1990s this defiance was manifested in a general flaunting of shit-substitute (the real thing was rarely found).
In Freud the order essential to civilization is opposed to anal eroticism, and in
Civilization and its Discontents (1930) he presents
the famous origin myth meant
to show us why. The story turns on the erection of man from all fours to two
feet, for with this change in posture, according to Freud, came a revolution in
sense: smell was degraded and sight privileged, the anal was repressed and the
genital pronounced. The rest is history: with his genitals exposed, man was
retuned to a sexual frequency that was continuous, not periodic, and he learned
shame; and this coming together of sex and shame impelled him to seek a wife,
to form a family, to found a civilization, to boldly go where no man had gone
before. Wildly heterosexist as this zany tale is, it does reveal a normative conception of civilization-not
only as a general sublimation of instincts but as a
eroticism that is also a specific abjection of (male)
In this light the shit movement in contemporary art may intend a symbolic
reversal of this first step into civilization, of the repression of the anal and the
olfactory. As such it may also intend a symbolic reversal of the phallic visuality of
the erect body as the primary model of traditional painting and sculpture-the
human figure as both subject and frame of representation in Western art. This
double defiance of visual sublimation and vertical form is a strong subcurrent in
Abjected and/or repressed, these terms are rendered critical, able to disclose the heterosexist
aspects of these operations. Yet this logic may accept a reduction of male homosexuality to anal
eroticism, and, as with the infantilist parody of the paternal law or the infantilist exploration of the
maternal body, it may accept the dominance of the very terms that it opposes.
twentieth-century art (which might be subtitled “Visualityand its Discontents”),21
and it is often expressed in a flaunting of anal eroticism. “Anal eroticism finds a
narcissistic application in the production of defiance,” Freud wrote in his 1917 essay
on the subject; in avant-gardist defiance too, one might add, from the chocolate
grinders of Duchamp through the cans of merdeof Piero Manzoni, to the shitty
Miller and the shitty performances
of Mike Kelley.22 In
contemporary art anal-erotic defiance is often self-conscious, even self-parodic: it
may test the anally repressive authority of traditional culture, but it also mocks the
anally erotic narcissism of the vanguard rebel-artist. “Let’sTalk About Disobeying”
reads one banner emblazoned with a cookie jar by Kelley. “Pants-shitter and Proud
of It” reads another that derides the self-congratulation of the institutionally
However pathetic, this defiance can also be perverse, a twisting of the paternal
law of difference-sexual
and generational, ethnic and social. Again, this perversion is often performed through a mimetic regression to “the anal universe
where all differences are abolished.”24 Such is the fictive space that artists like
Miller and Kelley set up for critical play. “We interconnect everything, set up a
field,” Kelley has the bunny say to the teddy in Theory, Garbage, Stuffed Animals,
Christ (1991), “so there is no longer any differentiation.”25 Like Miller, Kelley
explores this space where symbols are not yet stable, where “the concepts faeces
(money, gift), babyand penis are ill-distinguished from one another and are easily
interchangeable.”26 Both artists push this symbolic interchange toward aformal
indistinction-push the baby and the penis, as it were, toward the lump of shit.
However, this is done not to celebrate mere indistinction but to trouble symbolic
difference. Lumpen, the German word for “rag” that gives us Lumpensammmler
(the ragpicker that so interested Benjamin) and Lumpenproletariat(the mass too
ragged to form a class that so interested Marx, “the scum, the leavings, the refuse
For an incisive reading of this discontented modernism, see Rosalind Krauss, The Optical
Unconscious(Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992), and for a comprehensive history of this antiocular tradition,
see Martin Jay, Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century
French Thought (Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1993).
Sigmund Freud, “On Transformations of Instinct as Exemplified in Anal Erotism,” in On
Sexuality,ed. Angela Richards (London: Penguin, 1977), p. 301. On the primitivism of this avant-gardist
defiance, see my “‘Primitive’ Scenes,” CriticalInquiry (Winter 1993.). Mediations of anal eroticism, as in
the “Black Paintings” of Robert Rauschenburg or the early graffiti paintings of Cy Twombly, tend to be
more subversive than declarations of anal defiance.
Here and elsewhere Kelley pushes infantilist defiance toward adolescent dysfunction: “An adoles23.
cent is a dysfunctional adult, and art is a dysfunctional reality, as far as I am concerned” (quoted in
CatholicTastes,ed. Elisabeth Sussman [New York:Whitney Museum of American Art, 1994], p. 51).
Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel, Creativity and Perversion (New York: W. W. Norton, 1984), p. 3.
Differences are not abolished in this universe (this formulation tends to the homophobic) so much as
transformed. The exemplar of this transformation in contemporary fiction is Dennis Cooper.
Mike Kelley, Theory,Garbage,StuffedAnimals, Christ,quoted in CatholicTastes,p. 86.
Freud, “On Transformations of Instinct,” p. 298. Kelley plays on both psychoanalytic and
anthropological intuitions about the interconnection of all these terms-feces, money, gifts, babies,
MikeKelley.The Riddle of the Sphinx.
classes”),27 is a crucial word in the Kelley lexicon, which he develops as a
term between the informe (of Bataille) and the abject (of Kristeva). In a
he does what Bataille urges: he bases materialism “on psychological or
facts.”28 The result is an art of lumpy things, subjects, and personae that
Unlike the Lumpen of
shaping, let alone sublimating
Kelley refuses molding, much
Napoleon III, Hitler,
Is there a cultural politics here? Often in the general culture of abjection
(I mean the culture of slackers and losers, grunge and Generation X) this posture of indifference expresses only a fatigue with the politics of difference. Yet
sometimes too this posture seems to intimate a more fundamental fatigue: a
a paradoxical desire to be desireless, a call of
strange drive to indistinction,
regression that goes beyond the infantile to the inorganic.29 In a 1937 text crucial
to the Lacanian discussion of the gaze, Roger Caillois, another associate of the
Karl Marx, The EighteenthBrumaireof Louis Bonaparte,in Surveysfrom Exile, ed. David Fernbach
(New York:Vintage Books, 1974), p. 197.
Bataille, Visionsof Excess,p. 15.
What was the music of Nirvana about if not the Nirvana principle, a lullaby droned to the
dreamy beat of the death drive? See my “Cult of Despair,”New YorkTimes,December 30, 1994.
Bataillean Surrealists, considered this drive to indistinction in terms of visualityspecifically of insects assimilated into space through mimicry.30This assimilation,
Caillois argued, allows for no agency, let alone subjecthood (these organisms are
“dispossessed of [this] privilege”), which he likened to the condition of extreme
To these dispossessed souls, space seems to be a devouring force. Space
pursues them, encircles them, digests them in a gigantic phagocytosis
[consumption of bacteria]. It ends by replacing them. Then the body
separates itself from thought, the individual breaks the boundary of his
skin and occupies the other side of his senses. He tries to look at himself
from any point whatever in space. He feels himself becoming space, dark
space where things cannot be put. He is similar, not similar to something,
but just similar. And he invents spaces of which he is “the convulsive
The breaching of the body, the gaze devouring the subject, the subject
becoming the space, the state of mere similarity: these are conditions evoked in
much art today. But to understand this convulsive possession in its contemporary
guise, it must be split into its two constituent parts: on the one hand an ecstasy in
the imagined breakdown of the image-screen and/or the symbolic order; on the
other hand a horror at this breakdown followed by a despair about it. Early
definitions of postmodernism evoked this first, ecstaticstructure of feeling, sometimes in analogy with schizophrenia. Indeed, for Fredric Jameson the primary
symptom of postmodernism was a schizophrenic breakdown in language and time
that provoked a compensatory investment in image and space.32And in the 1980s
many artists did indulge in simulacral intensities and ahistorical pastiches. In
recent intimations of postmodernism, however, the second, melancholicstructure
of feeling has dominated, and sometimes, as in Kristeva, it too is associated with a
symbolic order in crisis. Here artists are drawn not to the highs of the simulacral
image but to the lows of the depressive thing. If some high modernists sought to
transcend the referential object and some early postmodernists to delight in the
sheer image, some later postmodernists want to possess the real thing.
Today this bipolar postmodernism seems pushed toward a qualitative
change: some artists appear driven by an ambition, on the one hand, to inhabit a
Roger Caillois, “Mimicry and Legendary Psychasthenia,” trans. John Shepley, October31 (Winter
1984). Denis Hollier glosses “psychasthenia”as follows: “a drop in the level of psychic energy, a kind of
subjective detumescence, a loss of ego substance, a depressive exhaustion close to what a monk called
acedia”(“Mimesis and Castration 1937,” October31[Winter 1984], p. 11).
Caillois, “Mimicryand Legendary Psychasthenia,” p. 30.
This was first broached in “Postmodernism and Consumer Society,”in TheAnti-Aesthetic:
PostmodernCulture,ed. Hal Foster (Seattle: Bay Press, 1983). This ecstatic version cannot be dissociated
from the apparent boom of the early 1980s, nor the melancholic version (noted below) from the actual
bust of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
place of total affect and, on the other, to be drained of affect altogether; on the
one hand, to possess the obscene vitality of the wound and, on the other, to
occupy the radical nihility of the corpse. This oscillation suggests the dynamic of
psychic shock parried by protective shield that Freud developed in his discussion
of the death drive and Benjamin elaborated in his discussion of Baudelairean
modernism-but now placed well beyond the pleasure principle.33 Pure affect, no
affect: It Hurts, I Can’tFeelAnything.
Why this fascination with trauma, this envy of abjection, today? To be sure,
motives exist within art, writing, and theory alike. As I suggested at the outset,
there is a dissatisfaction with the textual model of reality-as if the real,
repressed in poststructuralist postmodernism, had returned as traumatic. Then
too there is a disillusionment with the celebration of desire as an open passport
of a mobile subject-as if the real, dismissed by a performative postmodernism,
were marshaled against a world of fantasy compromised by consumerism. But
obviously there are other forces at work as well: a despair about the persistent
AIDS crisis, invasive disease and death, systemic poverty and crime, a destroyed
welfare state, indeed a broken social contract (as the rich opt out in revolution
See Freud, Beyondthe PleasurePrinciple(1920), trans. James Strachey (New York:W. W. Norton,
1961), and Benjamin, “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire” (1939), in Illuminations,trans. Harry Zohn (New
York: Schocken Books, 1977). This bipolarity of the ecstatic and the abject provides one affinity,
sometimes remarked in cultural criticism, between the baroque and the postmodern. Both are drawn
toward an ecstatic shattering that is also a traumatic breaking; both fix on the stigma and the stain.
from the top, and as the poor are dropped out in immiseration from the bottom).
How one articulates these different forces is a difficult question-perhaps a definitive question for cultural criticism. In any case, together they have driven the
contemporary concern with trauma and abjection.
And one result is this: a special truth seems to reside in traumatic or abject
states, in diseased or damaged bodies. To be sure, the violated body is often the
evidentiary basis of important witnessings to truth, of necessary testimonials
against power. But there are dangers with this siting of truth as well, such as the
restriction of our political imagination to two camps, the abjector and the
abjected, and the assumption that in order not to be counted among sexists and
racists one must become the phobic object of such subjects. If there is a subject of
history for the culture of abjection at all, it is not the Worker, the Woman, or the
Person of Color, but the Corpse. This is a politics of difference pushed beyond
indifference, a politics of alterity pushed to nihility.34″Everything goes dead,” says
the Kelley teddy. “Like us,” responds the bunny.35 But is this point of nihility a
critical epitome of impoverishment where power cannot penetrate, or is it a place
from which power emanates in a strange new form? Is abjection a refusal of power
or its reinvention in a strange new guise, or is it somehow both these events at
once?36 Finally, is abjection a space-time beyond redemption, or is it the fastest
route for contemporary rogue-saints to grace?
Today there is a general tendency to redefine experience, individual and historical, in terms of trauma: a lingua traumais spoken in popular culture, academic
discourse, and art and literary worlds. Many contemporary novelists (e.g., Paul
Auster, Dennis Cooper, Steve Erickson, Denis Johnson, Ian McEwan, Tim O’Brien)
and filmmakers (e.g., Atom Egoyan in Exotica, Terry Gilliam in 12 Monkeys,the
Monty Python version of LaJetee)conceive experience in this paradoxical modality:
experience that is not experienced, at least not punctually, that comes too early or
too late, that must be acted out compulsively or reconstructed after the fact,
almost analytically. Often in these novels and films narrative runs in reverse or
moves very erratically, and the peripeteia is an event that happened long ago or
not at all (per the logic of trauma this is sometimes ambiguous).
On the one hand, especially in art, writing, and theory, this trauma discourse
continues the poststructuralist critique of the subject by other means, for
strictly in a psychoanalyticregister there is no subject of trauma-the position is
evacuated-so the critique of the subject seems most radical here. On the other
hand, especially in therapy culture, talk shows, and memoir-mongering, trauma is
To question this posture of indifference, however, is not to dismiss the possibility of a noncommunitarian politics, a subject of much provocative work in both cultural criticism (e.g., Leo Bersani)
and political theory (e.g.,Jean-Luc Nancy).
Kelley quoted in CatholicTastes,p. 86.
“Self-divestiture in these artists,” Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit write of Samuel Beckett, Mark
Rothko, and Alain Resnais in Arts of Impoverishment(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993), “is
also a renunciation of cultural authority.” Yet then they ask: “Might there, however, be a ‘power’ in
such impotence?” (pp. 8-9). If so, it is a power they seem to advocate rather than to question.
treated as an event that guarantees the subject, and in this psychologistic register
the subject, however disturbed, rushes back as survivor, witness, testifier. Here a
traumatic subject does indeed exist, and it has absolute authority, for one cannot
challenge the trauma of another: one can only believe it, even identify with it, or
not. In trauma discourse, then, the subject is evacuated and elevated at once. And in this
way it serves as a magical resolution of contradictory imperatives in contemporary
culture: the imperative of deconstructive
analyses on the one hand, and the
other; the imperative to acknowledge
the disrupted subjectivity that comes of a broken society on the one hand, and the
imperative to affirm identity at all costs on the other. Today, thirty years after the
death of the author, we are witness to a strange rebirth of the author as zombie, to
a paradoxical condition of absentee authority.
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