Comma’s Marketing and Production Assistant, Hannah Sothcott, breaks down the theories on which our forthcoming horror anthology The New Abject is founded.
In her book Powers of Horror (1980), Julia Kristeva developed her psychoanalytical theory of the ‘abject’, exploring the parts of ourselves that we reject and express shame towards. In anticipation of Comma’s latest anthology, The New Abject, it makes sense to shed some light on the theory that has acted as the source of inspiration for this new collection of stories.
In the theory of the abject, Julia Kristeva elaborates on intensely private, psychological experiences that society dismisses, but are commonplace to us all. Examples of these experiences include menstrual bleeding, breastfeeding, the loss of fingernails, teeth and hair, and the passing of faecal matter. This ‘jettisoned’ matter, Kristeva believes, links with the disruption of unity between mother and baby. Like the severing of the umbilical cord, these private experiences supposedly remind us of our individual fragility, lack of unity with those around us and, above all, our temporariness.
As a psychoanalytical theory, Kristeva’s perspective is deeply personal and individual, suggesting that there is little to nothing in terms of a remedy for the mourning of what we have lost, and will continue to lose. Of this isolation, she writes:
‘When I am beset by abjection, the twisted braid of affects and thoughts I call by such a name does not have, properly speaking, a definable object. The abject is not an ob-ject facing me, which I name or imagine. Nor is it an ob-jest, an otherness ceaselessly fleeing in a systematic quest of desire. What is abject is not my correlative, which, providing me with someone or something else as support, would allow me to be more or less detached and autonomous. The abject has only one quality of the object—that of being opposed to I.’
Here, Kristeva emphasises a sense of private suffering, hidden from view, and unspoken of. However, a previous theory, called the ‘social abject’, developed by Georges Bataille in his 1934 essay Abjection and Miserable Forms, kickstarted the process of making the ‘[…] things and people that society expels’ less private, and more public.
And so began the questioning of the need to hide and isolate aspects of ourselves that are actually commonplace to us all. With the social abject, as gestured towards by Bataille, we can challenge and change perspectives of it, turning private shame into straightforward, unified acknowledgement of us as a whole.
In The New Abject, the hidden stories of the abject are unearthed in a contemporary context. The main aim of the anthology is to bring to light phenomena which we still struggle to discuss today, such as the loss of a limb, infertility, or debilitating conditions like endometriosis and diseases of the bowel.
In the 21st century, the social abject (i.e. our responses to abjections) are mixed. For example, whilst we are seeing some success in ending the taxation of menstrual products, we still struggle with a narrow, often fetishised definition of beauty, and can’t always see beyond lost teeth, let alone why they might be lost in the first place. With this in mind, The New Abject seeks to place us in direct contact with our own discomfort and contradictory viewpoints. ‘Unlikely’ combinations are paired together intentionally, and explicitly – protest and eroticism, beautiful hair and discord, technology and regression.
What is clear is that to address and re-integrate the abject into society is important, not least because to dismiss it is to make our existence a complicated, disorientating one, similar to the isolation outlined by Kristeva. Imogen Tyler notes this in her interpretation of the theory:
‘[…] the disciplinary focus […] its processes of inclusion and exclusion, produce waste populations: an excess which threatens from within, but which the system cannot fully expel as it requires this surplus to both constitute the boundaries of the state and to legitimate the prevailing order of power.’
In other words, our exclusion of the abject is impossible, instead acting as a performative tool of power that ultimately limits us all in the end.
When commissioning contributors for the collection, Comma’s founder and publisher, Ra Page, asked writers to ‘[…] write a story that explores modern (or near-future) equivalents of the ‘casting off’ process, as well as unnerving or frightening examples of coming back into contact with what’s been cast off. This re-encounter is essential to the story; a kind of horrific homecoming, if you like.’
With this in mind, The New Abject allows us to develop a strange and exciting sense of acceptance as we explore aspects of ourselves with a newfound curiosity. As a result, it is a collection we all need. But this would not have been possible without the foundation of the complex, thought-provoking theoretical discoveries that were made in the past.
Kristeva, Julia, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), p. 2
Tyler, Imogen, ‘The Social Abject’, p.1
By Hannah Sothcott
The New Abject: Tales of Modern Unease is published 29th October and available to pre-order now.
Join us at the online launch event on 4th November, in partnership with the Northern Short Story Festival (ticket + book option).