Monday, April 21, 2008

My take on the Yale abortion "art" debacle

Just my two cents here, but after pondering this more (as someone who is also making art on this topic), I think what the artist in the Yale art scandal was trying to articulate with her performance piece was the cultural reaction to abjection with relation to the fetus.

Here is a definition of "abjection" from wikipedia:

The term "Abjection" literally means "the state of being cast off." The concept of abject exists in between the concept of an object and the concept of the subject, something alive yet not. In contemporary critical theory, it is often used to describe the state of often-marginalized groups, such as people of color, prostitutes, homosexuals, convicts, poor people and handicapped persons. This term originated in the works of Julia Kristeva. Often, the term space of abjection is also used, referring to a space that abjected things or beings inhabit.

Following Kristeva's formulation of abjection in Powers of Horror - An Essay on Abjection, abjection can be seen as letting go of something we would still like to keep. In the case of blood, semen, hair and excrement/urine, we recognize these as once being a part of ourselves, thus these forms of the abject are taken out of our system while bits of them remain in our selves. When one encounters blood, excrement, etc. outside of the body, one is forced to confront what was once a part of oneself, but no longer is. Dismemberment compels the same kind of heightened reaction when one confronts the horror of detachment. A dismembered finger or limb is identified as belonging to one's own body and is 'missed' while at the same time repulsive to the viewer for no longer being a part of the whole. Because humans frequently shed skin and blood etc. there is a higher tolerance to it and we are not as horrified as we would be in the case of dismemberment, yet most are not willing to engage with excrement or blood due to its detached nature. In a way, we exist in abjection: the process of creating our self (identity) is never-ending. The act of "selfing" ("identifying") ourselves is the only common feature of all people.

According to Kristeva, since the abject is situated outside the symbolic order, being forced to face it is an inherently traumatic experience. For example, upon being faced with a corpse, a person would be most likely repulsed because he or she is forced to face an object which is violently cast out of the cultural world, having once been a subject. We encounter other beings daily, and more often than not they are alive. To confront a corpse of one that we recognize as human, something that should be alive but isn't, is to confront the reality that we are capable of existing in the same state, our own mortality. This repulsion from death, excrement and rot constitutes the subject as a living being in the symbolic order.

This act is done in the light of the parts of ourselves that we exclude: un-namely – the mother. We must abject the maternal, the object which has created us, in order to construct an identity. This is done on the micro level of the speaking being, through her subjective dynamics, as well as on the macro level of society, through "language as a common and universal law." We use rituals, specifically those of defilement, in order to maintain clear boundaries between nature and society, the semiotic and the symbolic. This line of thought begins with Mary Douglas' important book, Purity and Danger, as well as in Kristeva's own Black Sun.

The concept of abject is often coupled (and sometimes confused with) the idea of the uncanny, the concept of something being "un-home-like", or foreign, yet familiar. The abject can be uncanny in the sense that we can recognize aspects in it, despite its being "foreign". An example, continuing on the one used above, is that of a corpse, namely the corpse of a loved one. We will recognize that person as being close to us, but the fact that the person is dead, and "no longer" the familiar loved one, is what creates a sort of cognitive dissonance, leading to abjection of the corpse.


IMO, the anti-choice forces have employed abjection vis a vis the proliferation dismembered fetus pictures, and very effectively, to dissuade people from supporting abortion rights. However, the contrast to this is the abjection that is the female corpse - as the result of self-induced or illegal abortion. It is this abjection that I am trying to use in The Coat Hanger Project to remind people why safe, legal abortion is a fundamental human right for women. And this is where I wish the Yale artist had tried to take her work, to complete her thought, to make a statement - instead of just causing an empty rucus with her "hoax."

- Angie Young, Director, The Coat Hanger Project

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