As in my last post, I am trying to make sure that my thesis writing is accessible to a wider audience. Since psychoanalytic theories are difficult to grasp without a psychoanalytic background, I am doing my best to distill texts down to meaning. This time, it is for Julia Kristeva’s concept of the abject, as described in Powers of Horror. Kristeva can be more difficult to understand than Freud, so I have tried to be redundant in my description of the abject. Although it is not required, the following text will have expected you to have read the previous passage on the uncanny.
In relation to the uncanny, Julia Kristeva says that the abject is “[e]ssentially different from ‘uncanniness,’ more violent, too” (Kristeva 1980, 5). As we will see, though, an understanding of the uncanny helps us in understanding Kristeva’s concept. In “Approaching Abjection”, the first chapter of Powers of Horror, Kristeva tries to leave us with an impression of what the abject is and how it feels. Her account is largely phenomenological, but occasionally she provides some idea of what the abject is, apart from how it feels.
Although most of her statements about the abject are not concrete, she does state, “It is something rejected from which one does not part, from which one does not protect oneself as from an object” (4). It is, to her, a part of the self, which an individual casts off. It is something we see in ourselves that we do not want. She says, “Not me. Not that. But not nothing, either” (2). This is a linguistic approach. She is saying that the abject isn’t something that we identify as our own self, but that it is also not something that we identify as not our own self. It sits between, or it straddles both. The abject is a casting out of a part of ourselves, or something we perceive could be a part of ourselves. It is something we do not want, but are. Kristeva writes, “On the edge of non-existence and hallucination, of a reality that, if I acknowledge it, annihilates me. There, abject and abjection are my safeguards” (2).
Thus, the abject is a defense mechanism, a way of protecting ourselves from becoming what we do not want to be, and it is expelling from our selves the things that frighten us. On this, Kristeva states, “’I’ want none of that element, sign of their desire; ‘I’ do not want to listen, ‘I’ do not assimilate it, ‘I’ expel it” (3). This leads her to the conclusion: “I expel myself, I spit myself out, I abject myself within the same motion through which ‘I’ claim to establish myself….’I’ am in the process of becoming an other at the expense of my own death” (3). The act of abjection, then, is the act of birthing a new self, a new identity, with the old, rejected idea missing. It is saying “I am not that” or “I will not be that” as vehemently and violently as possible.
How do we know what is abject, then? Kristeva offers numerous examples from the skin on milk to terrible crimes. She states, “It is not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection, but what disturbs identity, system order” (4). She cautions that it is not simply someone who denies morality, but instead suggests that the abject “is immoral, sinister, scheming, and shady: a terror that disassembles, a hatred that smiles, a passion that uses the body for barter instead of inflaming it, a debtor who sells you up, a friend who stabs you” (4). Thus, the abject is not ordinary, but extraordinary. It is an extreme, and so it evokes an extreme reaction.
Put simply: the abject is the object of fear. To elaborate, the fear that the abject is an object of is one that has been rejected or repressed. The abject could thus be seen as the object of the uncanny. Towards this point, Kristeva states,
“The abject might then appear as the most fragile…, the most archaic… sublimation of an ‘object’ still inseparable from drives. The abject is that pseudo-object that is made up before but appears only within the gaps of secondary repression. The abject would thus be the ‘object’ of primal repression.” (12)
In this way, the abject is, at its core, a thing that reminds us of those ideas that we (as an individual or as a society) have shoved down and repressed to such a point that they do not exist within us. When reminded of these things, we cast them off, again, expel ourselves from the representation, again, announce to ourselves that we are not that thing, again, and protect ourselves from becoming something we have rejected. Otherwise, we risk becoming alien to our own self.
Even supposing that the abject is not simply the object of the uncanny (the source of it), the abject is still a deep-seated fear of becoming something we do not wish to be. It is not really a reified thing, an object that can be dealt with in any other way that to reject it. Just as the uncanny is not something that can be rationalized, the abject is not something that can be dealt with directly. It is more of a sensation, a memory, a feeling. Kristeva makes a connection between the abject and the sublime, a topic I will not expound much upon here. For her, the sublime is a “cluster of meaning[s]…that arise, shroud me, carry me away, and sweep me beyond the things that I see, hear, or think. The ‘sublime’ object dissolves in the raptures of a bottomless memory” (12). I mention this now because it will connect to our discussion of the fantastic.
How does one design for the abject? If the case is that the abject is simply the object of the uncanny, then we can simply design for the uncanny. This is a simplistic way of looking at it, though. What the abject needs from a design, is to have a presentation of something that is so reprehensibly identifiable. That is to say, we must model something that the player is not going to want to emulate. We need to provide them with something that they want to eject from themselves. As with the uncanny, I can see two ways to go about it.
One way would be to provide a person who represents a subversion. Kristeva says that we are drawn to the abject, that it is something desired (or at least we are drawn to the act of rejecting it). Creating a character that represents some transgression will allow the player to reject that character in opposition. This harkens back to Kristeva’s example of the friend that betrays. Have a character lead the player in, or else need to be appeased, and then have that character perform something that goes against the social order of the world you have created. Make it a character that the player will need, but hate, one who has power exerted over players, and exerts it upon them.
The other, perhaps more insidious way of introducing the abject is through forcing the player to control a character who must do something that is against their own beliefs. If the player is led to identify with a character in one way, and then is forced to perform a transgression with that character, one which casts a shadow on the player’s own identification, the player will abject that character, while retaining the lived experience of identifying with the character for so long.
Using one of these techniques, layered with the construction of a feeling of uncanniness, can lead to a scattering of abjection, such that it can be difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins. The more abjection in the game, the more abject the whole game becomes, until the point where the game itself is abject and rejected outright. If the goal of the game is to get people to stop playing it, then put as much in as the game can hold. However, most games are meant to be played, so limiting the abjection to a few scatterings is probably the safer gambit.
Let me know what you think by leaving a comment or a sending something to me directly. Thanks!