On Kristeva’s „Powers of horror”

When I finished reading Kristeva’s ‚Powers of Horror‘, my first reaction was asking a question: what is the purpose of this work?

There was no doubt that the thing lying in front of me, in the form of an essay, on my favorite desk, belonged to the realm of work. Someone could even say more: the realm of hard work.

There was a certain evidence to support such an observation. Almost impossible to decipher, hundreds of complex sentences. The thoughts anchored in Kristeva’s experiences developed through the process of writing to the shapes of mathematical equations. Kristeva herself mentioned at some point the ‚Topology‘ (topology of catastrophe).

Someone who is trying to benefit from the reading of the ‚Powers of Horror‘ must be prepared for, let me use the metaphor: ‚himalayan tourism‘. You have to be prepared for climbing over the scary hogback builded on narrow, trappy cliffs. 

To follow Kristeva’s path the reader needs to know the whole western philosophical tradition from Plato, throughout the works of Kant, to Hegel and Husserl. Not only that. The reader needs to finish the study of the entire modern literature starting with Dostoyevsky, ending with Borges and Joyce. To understand what Kristeva’s undertaking was, the reader needs to be trained in the most spectacular language‘s achievements made by the most difficult writers and thinkers.

But let me take care of the first question that appeared: what is the purpose of Kristeva’s work?

In my opinion there are two hints that could lead to solve the mystery of ‚Powers of Horror‘. The first is, like I observed above, the language itself, the tool that Kristeva uses to create impression that her inquiry is of a scientific nature; and the second, more of a political and sociological character: the impact that theory of an abject had on the entire western culture including fine arts and media.

To investigate the first problem, one have to understand what it means to apply a completely new theory into the world‘s art esthetics with the ambition to change it on the level of a global transformation. Such work should meet the standards of academic preciseness with the glamour of scientific discovery and be rooted in everyday life expiriences of a typical human.

One has to use almost all the knowledge known to humanity to indicate that there is a logical evolution in it. From some ‚primitive‘ ideas such as Plato‘s idealism to the Joyce’s complex world of ‚Finnegans Wake‘ and Husserl‘s phenomenology.

But is Kristeva successful in her attempt to create a new gospel for postmodern, posthuman, poststructural postgenerations?

In my opinion yes and no.

After the lecture of Kristeva’s work the same pleas raise which are common to the experience after the reading of Lacan. Although Kristeva criticizes the Lacanian „algorithm“ S/s but as it can be observed, she uses the same picklocks to prove that she is right. Let’s look at this passus:

…“A ternary structure, if you wish, held in keystone position by the Other, but a „structure” that is skewed, a topology of catastrophe…“

After Alan Sokal‘s and Jean Bricmont‘s critique of Lacan, it is known that there exists something like“ superficial erudition“ sometimes described as a fashionable nonsense.

Looking closer at the phrase ‚topology of catastrophe‘, one must agree that this is nothing more then just a magician attempt to prove that his operations are scientifically provable.

After the study of Fraser‘s ‚Golden Bough‘, and ‚The Magick‘ by the most famous modern wizard Aleister Crowley, it is widely acknowledged that naming, calling or summoning is a form of formulating spells in the language, which all are a key to enchant particular object or living being to serve somebody according to their will.

As Crowley mentioned that it couldn‘t even be comprehended the depth of ABRAHADABRA (but yet it works). 

Kristeva uses the same strategy. Through equilibristic operations within the text, finally she summons the ABJECT.

Her procedure starts with EGO, SUPEREGO and ID:

…“To each ego its object, to each superego its abject“… 

categories that don’t really exist – look at the issue how Freud’s theory ignores the whole Asian contribution to the knowledge of human consciousness: the Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, Jinnism etc. and Joyce‘s idea related to how people speak:

…“The abject lies, beyond the themes, and for Joyce generally, in the way one speaks“…

Is there any such an idea in Joyce‘s work? From Epiphannies, through Chamber music to Ulisses? I don’t think so.

Constructing an argument on those grounds, with the above conclusions, it is just an act of a pure magic, or in Kristeva’s case, pure witchcraft.

To deal with ‚Powers of Horror‘, one could use another demystifying method developed by famous Cambridge philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.  For example, when we read passages like:

‚[…]-It is in the historical act that Hegel sees fundamental impurity being expended; as a matter of fact, the latter is a sexual impurity whose historical achievement consists in marriage. But—and this is where transcendental idealism, too, sadly comes to an end—here it is that desire {Lust), thus normalized in order to escape abject concupiscence (Begierde), sinks into a banality that is sadness and silence […]‘, it’s difficult not to get rid of the feeling that what Kristeva writes is just an old, classical Sprachspiel (mambo jumbo, saying bluntly).

It is not even that how she rides over the thousands years of human thought gluing and cutting/pasting some  threads in the manner: oh, this is my phenomenological channelling and you buzz off, but also her sloppy approach to the matter that needs to be properly judged (Hegel!!!!) particularly after  such penetrating effort by author of Tractatus.

But let’s keep it brief, to examine the second hint (impact) or the first part of the answer: YES and no (is she successful in creating new gospel).

To deal with both first we have to admit that Kristeva’s theory of ABJECT is now an indisputable part of the contemporary culture ideology.

Someone who will try to criticize modern art on the grounds of it’s ugliness, monstrosity or horror will be beaten by the guards of ABJECT‘s inviolability with the rod created by Kristeva.

To understand that, the origins of modern art needs to be mentioned. Two ideas can be taken into consideration when studying the origins of modern art from the writings of the most profound thinker in that field, Walter Benjamin. The first one – ‚Baudelaires du Gout‘:

…“le beau est l’uniqueambition, le but exlusif du Gout“… (Teophile Gautier);

and second – ‚The Aura‘.

For Baudelaire du Gout establishes morality:

…“ Aussi ce qui exaspère surtout l’homme de goût dans le spectacle du vice, c’est sa difformité, sa disproportion. Le vice porte atteinte au juste et au vrai, révolte l’intellect et la conscience ; mais comme outrage à l’harmonie, comme dissonance, il blessera plus particulièrement certains esprits poétiques et je ne crois pas qu’il soit scandalisant de considérer toute infraction à la morale, au beau moral, comme une espèce de faute contre le rhythme et la prosodie universels“…

For Benjamin, for the quality of artwork aura is crucial, which is lost in the process of mechanical multiplication (The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction).

As it can be seen, the taste/morality and the aura are the most important components of the art, modern art included. But when the modern art galleries are being visited, the only thing that can be met is THE ABJECT ART, which doesn‘t have any aura, even if it is the perfectly unique piece of work (!) – (because excrements don’t have any aura – or it is some kind of aura of more medical origin); and no taste (du Gout), or better, THE ABJECT‘s taste – again, taste of excrements, which taste then creates everything except any morality. That is the final and real Kristeva’s contribution to the history of modern art.

To answer the question that appears the first after reading ‚Powers of Horror‘, what is the purpose of it?‘,  again, it needs to be examined the precious Benjamin’s analysis of the period when modern art, with Baudelaire’s activities, was born. 

What Benjamin discovered was Baudelaire who was the first artist entering the free market:

…“Once a writer had entered the market place, he looked around as in diorama“… (The Flaneur). To say it differently, the flaneur on his walk between the different shop’s display windows is in the middle of a new reality. The market is here the key word. The poet is seen as a producer of another commodity. 

As it is known nowadays, the history of modern capitalism is a one big struggle of how to control the market, of how to get to a full monopole position. Today‘s concentration of power was unknown in the previous centuries, that is 15 people own more then half of the goods of global human population. Maybe this could be compared to the times of the Pharaohs, however their circle of influence was limited to the area of northeastern Africa only. 

Going back to Benjamin‘s writings about Baudelaire, what appeared as the only conclusion, was – you can‘t benefit 100% from the market if you don’t have 100% control of it. 

Nonetheless, as it can be seen, in the beginning, it was impossible to control it with such ideas as ‚du Gaut‘. Baudelaire controlled Du Gaut and he was unpredictable. In order to take over the market one had to destroy any idea, which is based on morality, or other values recognizable for majority of the people. That is why THE ABJECT stage in history of acquisition of content by modern global monopole was the necessary stage. 

What it can be observed these days, what is important or not in the world of art, is simply being decided by organizations that own the distribution networks and the media. It can’t be applied any traditional value to any piece of contemporary art. It is irrelevant. 

In my opinion, we are back (upside down) into the medieval reality when what was art or not was decided by the church hierarchs. Only the bishop could decide if the particular painting or sculpture fitted the proper standards. Everything thank to Kristeva‘s ‚Powers of Horror‘. 

(in brief)


and here some raw remarks [passage trough]:

-Fascinates desire

Only a pervert is fascinated by vomits.

– The abject has only one quality of the object—that of being opposed to I.

This is the problem with I. But what is this „I”? Who’s there?!

-To each ego its object, to each superego its abject.

Ego, superego, id? No one get’s this cheesy concepts seriously. We live after almost 100 years of psychoanalysis reigns and yet no one was cured or elevated by practical usage of those meaningless terms.

-On the edge of nonexistence and hallucination, of a reality that, if I acknowledge it, annihilates me.

Yeah, again, who’s that me  Julia?!

-Food loathing is perhaps the most elementary and most archaic

form of abjection.

In this paragraph Julia is showing us how she doesn’t like a milk and to vomit. As a kids we don’t like certain food and nobody likes to vomit. Everything seems to be normal but Julia creates from that abject. 

-If it be true that the abject simultaneously beseeches and pulverizes the subject…

No, it’s not true.

-The one by whom the abject exists is thus a deject who places (himself), separates (himself), situates (himself), and therefore strays instead of getting his bearings, desiring, belonging, or refusing.

Again false distinction. Someone who eat’s his own shit is not any exile or „strays”. There is a medical treatment for that. Coprophagia.

-For the stray considers himself as equivalent to a Third Party.

Who’s the third party?

– A ternary structure, if you wish, held in keystone position by the Other, but a „structure” that is skewed, a topology of catastrophe.

Oh yea? Topology? Does Kristeva knows the meaning of topology?  Babble after babble. 

-Because, while releasing a hold, it does not radically cut off the subject from what treatens it—on the contrary, abjection acknowledges it to be in perpetual danger.

Are you the subject that is treaten by your own shit? Is the perpetual danger for you that you are so afraid that soon you will be eating your own shit?

-But when I seek (myself), lose (myself), or experience jouissance—then „I” is heterogeneous.

So again, who’s that I that seeks? 

-Thus braided, woven, ambivalent, a heterogeneous flux marks out a territory that I can call my own because the Other, having dwelt in me as alter ego, points it out to me through loathing. 

All of sudden Other as an alter ego is a part of me. So , deep in myself I really want to eat my shit in the toilet.

-dwells in a human animal

Well if someone is just an animal then is perfectly understandable why sometimes eats his own shit. Dogs do the same sometimes.

-its return, in a phobic, obsessional, psychotic guise, or more generally and in more imaginary fashion in the shape of abjection, notifies us of the limits of the human universe. 

Yea, from ping-pong to king -kong. Another false generalisation based on constant babble. Human universe has no limits baby.

-Abjection, with a meaning broadened to take in subjective diachrony, is a precondition of narcissism.

It means that if you don’t eat your shit in toilet you are on the straight way to narcissism. Well…

-The sense of abjection that I experience is anchored in the superego.

Again, who believes now in superego? Is there such thing? No.

Ok. Suddenly we jumping into a deep waters. Borges, Dostoyevsky, Joyce ect.  One should read all those books in order to understand Julia’s slaloming but let’s check one of them – Joyce. I’ve read most of Joyce work, from Chamber Music to Finnegans Wake.

-The abject lies, beyond the themes, and for Joyce generally, in the way one speaks;

What???? How on earth?! So eating the shit is way the people speak???????? Where is that in Joyce books? Only Julia knows.

OK. Now is the time for Platon, Kant and Hegel. 

-It is in the historical act that Hegel sees fundamental impurity being expended; as a matter of fact, the latter is a sexual impurity whose historical achievement consists in marriage. But—and this is where transcendental idealism, too, sadly comes to an end—here it is that desire {Lust), thus normalized in order to escape abject concupiscence (Begierde), sinks into a banality that is sadness and silence.

That’s what Kristeva gets from Hegel’s work including Fenomenology of the Spirit, and that’s what she suggests about transcendental idealism. Kristeva vs. Kant. Mother Goose vs. B2 stealth bomber.

Ok. And now ladies and gentleman how Kristeva finishes her first chapter:

-This preliminary survey of abjection, phenomenological on the whole…

Phenomenological on the whole in simple words means: this is my blathering and you suppose to dig it because I call it phenomenological. 


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