Beyond the Clean and Proper

By Kimberley Cooper

act-of-seeing-with-ones-own-eyes-stan-brakhage-1.jpgThe Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes, 1971

Recent months have seen the release of a number of “art house” films such as Noé’s Seul contre tous, Catherine Breillat’s Romance, Von Trier’s The Idiots, Solondz’s Happiness (the list goes on) that push the boundaries of the acceptable, and border on, if not actively engage with the abject – the transgressive, the disturbing, the horrifying.  

These films have two things in common: they have created a visceral reaction in their audiences, and, more importantly, they have all aroused a fervent moral polemic. It is this that is so interesting. Disturbing and confronting, they nevertheless seem to generate ontological significance. Some films present an idealised fantasy imaginary, where spectacle and the joys of hermeneutic consistency dominate, others function more like art objects, provoking thought and analysis in the viewer. Thus A Clockwork Orange becomes a political artefact – a moral warning against the dangers of a fascist controlling state and the sociopathy it engenders; Man Bites Dog – a comment on the role of the press as accessory to the crime? The abject used in this way turns into a moral metaphor, upholding exactly what it has just destroyed.

eyes-without-a-face-georges-franju.jpgGeorges Franju directs a masked Edith Scob in Eyes Without a Face, 1959

One of the most comprehensive theories of the abject and the experience of abjection, Julia Kristeva’s seminal text Powers of Horror, posits it as intimately tied into the construction of the speaking subject and his/her mœbius-like relationship to culture through signifying practices, or more specifically, language. She defines the abject as: “What disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite.” In this sense, the abject is both intimately connected and threatening to the moral fabric for both the individual and society – morality being defined as not simply right and wrong, but the organising principles of a system.

Kristeva sees both subjectivity and culture as emerging out of the physical and psychic divide between mother and child. This divide is characterised by a tremendous sense of loss and desire for reunion with the mythic oceanic mother, and simultaneously by the fierce hate and fear of losing self that that reunion means.

repulsion-roman-polanski-1.jpgRepulsion, 1965

This divide, the abyss, is where both the abject and the sublime reside. Imagination emerges out of it to cover it up, and all that is repressed as cultural detritus is hidden there. One could even find a filmic metaphor of this process in Franju’s Eyes without a Face, where the father of a girl who has lost her face in an accident desperately tries to cover it over, first with a plastic mask, and then with skin from the faces of other girls.

This is the paradox at the foundation of being that requires denial in the form of a leap of faith. It is quite literally inexplicable. It is like a blind spot, or more exactly, like a black hole, so dense, and so unbelievably, irresistibly attractive. It is a dangerously desirable moment where the self and the universe can become singular again. Tempered by language, it is the fusion reactor of the soul.

repulsion-roman-polanski-2.jpgRepulsion, 1965

According to Kristeva, it is around and over this singularity that subjectivity is encouraged, firstly by the mother’s organisation of the child’s body on a corporeal level: washing, feeding, excreting. She delimits and directs the raw drive energies to points where inside and outside meet: mouth, anus, genitals. Sensation, physical and psychological, is concentrated in these areas and it is the processes attached to them that provide the conceptual models, at the level of the Real (material experience) for meaning in language. The second level is constituted by family structure and involves the internalisation of social law, particularly in regard of sexual roles. And the third level is the psychic leap to the conceptual level of language, or the moment of thesis as Kristeva calls it. Here un-mediated experience (the Real) becomes conceptual. A signifying system takes the place of the Real, which is repressed, and “I” becomes a centre in relation to all that is “other”. The model A – not-A, becomes the organising principle of language, where meaning is constantly deferred across a signifying network.

Taking this structure, it is clear why corporeal waste/decay and the physicality of sexuality are the two most universal sources of abjection.

Sometimes the Real, henceforth experienced as the abject, resurfaces. In some societies it is purposefully brought forth and exorcised within the ring-fence of the sacred. Art and religion are its main ciphers, but it also demarcates the liminal moments (rites of passage) that organise the individual’s life. Ritual keeps it contained, and through ritual the abject is made to signify and becomes sublime, functioning to create and sustain moral boundaries. The abject is a source of danger and destruction but also, as Kristeva states, “eminently productive of culture.”

a-clockwork-orange-stanley-kubrick.jpgA Clockwork Orange, 1971

Abjection, the experience and paradoxically the simultaneous creation of the abject, may be felt as sickness, loss of consciousness, or catatonia. Such feelings protect the integrity of the subject at the moment when borders have collapsed. They may range in intensity from a serious suspension of reality to a disconcerting feeling that things are not what they seem – a feeling that is the constant companion of the phobic, the depressive, and more often than not, the artist. Catherine Deneuve in Polanski’s Repulsion has the abject as her constant companion; it manifests itself in the cracks in the pavement, the materiality of hair, nails and skin at the beauty salon in which she works, and in her attraction/repulsion to her sister’s gross and violent lover.

Films like Seul Contre Tous and Romance transgress the boundaries of the “clean and proper”, but they are in essence psychological and ultimately moral investigations. The subjects of both films fall into the abject but find deliverance through it. The transgressive nature of abjection means that the “I” visits its absolute boundaries but is saved by abjection. Abjection, like anxiety, reaffirms borders. This can become addictive because, in Kristeva’s model, imagination takes over to stitch up the hole in the web of illusion that covers the abyss or singularity at the core of being. Imagination creates new rules, new relations, new meanings – it reasserts life.

However films like Gummo, A Clockwork Orange or Man Bites Dog are disturbing less as a result of their content than because they do not take a moral viewpoint. Nevertheless, the appropriate work is done by the viewers simply because they are horrified – they are forced to judge even though the film does not.  Much more virulent and insidious is the abject that disguises itself as the “popular”. Television and the local multiplex typically harbour far more corruptive material than the purposefully transgressive work screened in the art house cinema. The very conditions of viewing characteristic of the latter promote critical examination and introspection, whereas art practised as business regularly produces a form of the “abject” that travels around in disguise, a charming, seductive chameleon. This, as Kristeva states, is: “Perverse because it neither assumes a prohibition, a rule, or a law; but turns them aside, misleads, corrupts; uses them, takes advantage of them, the better to deny them... It establishes narcissistic power while pretending to reveal the abyss”.

Kimberley Cooper is the Facilities Manager of Lusia Films.