‘Abjection’ as a springboard for maternal subjectivity

Hadara Scheflan Katzav


This article seeks to demonstrate how an encounter with abjection—one of Kristeva’s central concepts in Powers of Horror (1982)—can serve as a vital tool in forming a new female identity that opposes the dictates of the oedipal patriarchal order.[1]

The Kristevan notion of abjection relates to what one “casts off” from oneself due to its horror-inducing, abominable, revolting quality—i.e., everything that is excluded from the symbolic order. Kristeva employs the maternal body as a paradigm and launching point for her thought about abjection. As a leaking corpus, the maternal body defies clear boundaries, threatening the solid borders of the symbolic and imaginary. Unsignifiable in its entirety (interior and exterior), it exhibits a chaotic “order.” The “I” can thus only fear/take pleasure in it’s partial objects. This is the autarchy of the abject—my longing for / enjoying the mother while suppressing this emotion out of great fear.

Although a leaking or swelling body is one of the clear signs of the maternal body, it is also a feature of corpses. Kristeva’s concept of abjection, which associates maternal bodies and corpses (3) explains why patriarchal culture creates ideal representations of the female figure. It does so in order to conceal the subversive potential of the maternal body that refuses to conform to its system.

While according to Kristeva abjection always relates to the maternal body as a longing/fearing object, I would like to approach it from a different perspective, shifting from gazing upon the mother to gazing within her—the mother as the subject of abjection. In other words, I would like to ask: What can the mother do with her own abjection?

Approaching this question via an analysis of two contemporary Israeli women artists, both mothers, I suggest that their work illustrates how abjection serves as a springboard for the maternal body. Kristeva perceives birth as an event that violently shatters the oedipal symbolic order (oedipal in the sense of creating separateness and borders). Contractions, birth, leaking, enormous pain, and the unorganized semiotic all furiously drive out logic, order, and the oedipality of the symbolic. Birth thus constitutes a breach of the law, pushing culture beyond its boundaries in such a way as to force the mother and her body to reject the total demands that characterize the symbolic order. Highlighting birth and abjection facilitates thought of an even earlier entity than the phallic that threatens the law of the father, and is one that belongs in part to the mother (71–72). Something in the mother always remains autonomous and free from authority.

The undermining of paternal law is also key to the development of a different maternal self-perception and way of perceiving others. The maternal sense of not being one, closed, unified, consolidated, or sequential allows mothers to locate themselves outside of and question language.

One of the most intriguing examples of the way in which an alternative approach to abjection can form the basis for a new perception of the female/maternal body is Sigal Barkai’s series entitled “Bleach.” In a conversation with the artist (12 Feb. 2006), she related to her alienation from the female body as an adolescent—rejecting her mother’s body, wearing loose, large clothing, and hiding herself. After she gave birth, however, when she came face to face with the abject, in her own violated and leaking borders, her view of femininity began to change. Five years after the birth of her daughter, she exhibited “Bleach” (1998)—a series of paintings using bleach on dark blue material—the colour of work clothes, a symbol of the status of workers and the Socialist Youth Movement in Israel. In her words,

The blue shirt is an object of my opposition, a symbol of the Establishment. Onto this I poured liquid bleach stains where sweat leaks under the armpits, where mother’s milk stains are caused by the dripping from her nipples, where menstrual blood stains clothes (Personal interview).

This work suggests that the real—that which cannot be accessed because of the border the signifier creates—bursts forth from the surplus in relation to the signifier. So what does she do with it? The uniform-colour stains produced by the bleach and the liquids that connect the stains help Barkai to merge all her female secretions into a single signifier that simultaneously highlights and scours the abjection—like bleach that both cleans and abrades. This creates a new, uniform visibility, serving as a sign that includes rather than completely replacing it’s reference. Hereby, she takes an original step that appears to convey a new ability to bridge the gap between the real and the signifier—i.e., between the trauma and its representation.

Having felt herself to have been a masculine woman in the past, Barkai now experiences herself differently:

Abjection became the essence of femininity for me. The blue shirt symbolizes the masculine woman I used to be, the abjection in contrast being that hiding underneath it. When I gave birth and breastfed, I flowed and sprayed from every direction; femininity burst forth and imposed itself on me. It became something good; it connected me to my body, femininity, myself (Personal interview).

Abjection plays a similar role in Shira Richter’s artwork. She began her large project entitled “Mother, Daughter, and Holy Ghost” some months after giving birth to twins, completing it around a year later. It consists of close-ups of her stomach, sometimes together with additional objects. After the birth, the skin of her stomach came to resemble “elephant’s skin”, initially causing her disgust: “It was a foreign, repulsive body” (Shira, Richter. Personal interview. 20 Aug. 2007). This recalls the abject—very close but impossible to assimilate, disgusting and repellent (Kristeva 1). “I had no form or identity,” notes Richter, “The skin on my stomach was wrinkled, sagging and scarred, not resembling anything.” This, too, recalls the Kristeva’s notion of the abject: formless, defying clear and sharp boundaries, changing shape, trembling, it “beseeches, worries, and fascinates desire …” (1).

Her stomach, Richter (2006) observes, “expressed what I felt and couldn’t say, and what no one else wanted to hear. The stomach visually opened, gaped, and became a mouth, a crater, and the all-knowing one.” Here, we begin to hear the mother’s voice as subject—the sound of refusal that takes shape via the abjected stomach:

In certain angles it looked like the Syro-African rift valley which slices Israel’s landscape and in certain angles it looked like a volcano. And that is how I felt. I felt that I went through a lethal earthquake. I felt I was kicked in the gut. In everyday life we are expected to keep a façade, to keep our “gut feelings” bottled up. Especially regarding the truths of pregnancy and birth, which, is considered a wonderful and positive thing and how dare you complain you lucky woman. The gutscape exposed all. The inner twisting and distortion required of me from external untalked about but existing social conventions—conscious and less conscious—became an external and visual distortion. … The tummy, or skin, didn’t conceal. She [it] didn’t conceal the tension and extreme stretching, the pain and suffering of this stretch, the contraction and depletion, the old age. She [it] didn’t hide the rip and tear, the cracks and rifts and geologic swallow holes. The stomach became, in the most visual and unromantic aspect, mother earth. … It’s like a trip to a strange country, a new planet. Topography. Landscapes. The closer you get, the farther you see. The closer and nearer you get to the skin textures, the farther you become. From up close it looked like an aerial photograph of the Sahara Desert. Of a ski resort, or mountain ridge (2006).

Through the portraits of her stomach, Richter demonstrates how the close and the remote blend in motherhood—the extent to which something foreign can become very intimate and vice versa. As she relates:

In the process of pregnancy labor and parenting there were many things I couldn’t refuse. I was forced to go through checkups I didn’t want, was forced to give birth a way I didn’t want to do. Relatives “forced” me to smile to their unannounced visits … the pregnancy itself forced a shape and behavior I didn’t want. The stomach, on the other hand, refused to “go back to normal” and refused to pretend “nothing major just happened.” I conquered my body and stomach back through re-owning the story. I refused. I refused to conceal—on the contrary—I blew it up, so everyone could see. I refused to cut (plastic surgery). I refused to be silent, to ignore or deny. I refused to cooperate with what (almost) everyone else does (2006).

Through the act of refusal Richter creates a new subjectivity. This is linked to the different view of the gaze her work embodies. According to Lacan, the formation of subjectivity is necessarily bound up with the mirror stage, in which the infant attains a full image of herself and an experience of her identity as separate from the mother, together with a sense of an inner split between the I and the ideal I—between the body and the reflection in the mirror (1-7). In her photographs, Richter relinquishes the full image, thereby returning to the initial sources of the infant’s experience of self when she sees herself in fragments prior to the mirror stage.

Although full portraits of face and body clarify the image, a gap nonetheless exists between the self and the image (similar to that between the I and the reflection in the mirror). In the new form Richter chooses however, her gaze does not return to her from the Other but is a self-gaze, searching and wandering over the unclear and fragmented shape. “Is this me? Like asking, is this really me? Yes, it’s me!” Hereby, reality prevails over doubt.

The social gaze has taught us to turn our eyes away from abject objects in order not to encounter our fear. Richter chooses to look directly at them—her gaze changing, however. As she relates, from the outset her body both repulsed her and called to her: “But around four months after the birth I looked and touched and discovered this beauty, new feelings. I was already afraid it would disappear before I could document me.” Hate and disgust became love and affection for her body from another place: “In the normal world, mothers were going around being proud of their bodies after birth, like men with war scars, like military stripes on their shoulders” (Personal interview).

“Without Icing” depicts a close-up of her wrinkled stomach, on top of which rest a single birthday candle. This work was created on her son’s first birthday. In contrast to other birthdays, where the child stands at the centre, here the most important signifier is maternal time. A year has passed and the artist has now realized that her new body will not disappear but will remain forever. The stomach that in the past had been a “non-object” (in the sense of being “formless”) has become a “non-object” (in the sense of being part of the subject). In other words, the mother as subject has relinquished her desire to protect the boundaries of the abject in favour of a new voice—hoarser, perhaps, but very present and wholly committed to opposing the fantasy of the ideal I.

What I felt was very far from the common images of pregnancy, birth, and parenting. I did not feel the myth-bliss of Demi Moore’s tummy in flowers; I identified neither with the heavenly breastfeeding Madonna nor with home videos that show pieces of bloody flesh coming out of vaginas; the super-realistic, depressing images of sagging bodies also didn’t feel right. Mine was a powerful, awe-inspiring, wonderful and terrible, ridiculous and humbling experience, transforming everything and demanded everything; like a head-on collision. It tore everything apart, including the body, and put everything back together again—but nothing was as it had been before. (Richter, 2006)

Here, Richter describes touching the real—a different form of pleasure, traumatic and wonderful, of disintegration and reintegration. She is also speaking, however, against the patriarchal myths. Forming part of the symbolic order and thus propounding the dualist distinction between I and Other, these are responsible for producing the binary antithesis between proper and improper, sacred and profane. Here, abjection becomes a ghost that haunts the myth, the myth purifying the abject.

Kristeva demonstrates how Judeo-Christian myths—including that of the Virgin Mother and other cultural rituals that deny the mother’s sexuality and make her body taboo (Stabat Mater 161-169)—are cultural constructs, serving to purify maternal abjection (94). In the artistic context, Lynda Nead (6) observes that culture in general and art in particular uses female nudity to close the female orifices, thereby delineating the boundary between interior and exterior. As Rosemary Betterton (33-34) also notes, maternal nudity contains an inner dichotomy, a fundamental rupture in representation, which only the association with the Virgin Mary can repair, facilitating the fantasy of a hermetically-sealed body.

The Christian myth allows another reading of Richter’s series. Although she gave birth to twin sons, the project—conceived in the wake of their birth—is entitled “Mother, Daughter, and Holy Ghost.” This may offer an alternative to the patriarchal Christian myth that rests on the law of the father, boundaries, and clear separation between interior/exterior and child/mother. Richter’s self-abjection restores the repressed—the mother’s body and the separation trauma. It transforms the prohibition against the maternal body into the most primal connection with it, bringing in its wake the birth of pleasure. This work thus demonstrates a new and pleasurable relation to the body.

In conclusion, through an analysis of the artwork of Shira Richter and Sigal Barkai I have suggested that the relationship between motherhood, femininity, and artistic works can be understood as complementary rather than dichotomous.

As we have seen, a variant understanding of abjection can alter the attitude taken towards boundaries, affording some artists the opportunity to bridge the symbolic and real. Accepting the abject confronted the artists with the ancient need to be separated from the maternal entity. It broke down the wall of repression, bringing them back into contact with the trauma, the real—thereby offering the maternal artists the possibility of reconstituting themselves as maternal subjects with flexible and porous boundaries.



Works Cited

Barkai, Sigal. Personal interview. 12 Feb. 2006.

Betterton, Rosemary. “Mother figures: The maternal nude in the work of Kathe Kollwitz and Paula Modersohn-Becker”. An intimate distance: Women, artists and the body. London and NewYork: Routledge. 1996. 20–45. Print.

Kristeva, Julia. Powers of horror: An essay on abjection. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press. 1982. Print.

—————– . “Stabat Mater”.  The Kristeva Reader. Ed. Toril Moi. Oxford: Basil Blackwell. 1986. 160-186. Print.

Lacan, Jacques. “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience”. Ecrits: A Selection. Trans. A. Sheridan. New York and London: Norton and Company. 1977. Print.

Nead, Lynda. The female nude: Art, obscenity and sexuality. London and New York: Routledge. 1992. Print.

Richter, Shira. The mother, daughter, and Holy Spirit: Mapping the Gap. Exh. cat. Herzliya: The Artists’ Residence. 2006. Print.

Richter, Shira. Personal interview. 20 Aug. 2007.


[1] Under otherwise noted, all references to Kristeva herein relate to Powers of Horror.


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