The Maternal Abject
Through the process of art making I explore my own psyche. I am currently searching for my own identity as a mother and that of my children, through the paths that link us and the channels that separate us. It is a process of trying to understand the nature of that most intense form of love that occurs between two human beings. A love whose roots stem from an abject relationship whereby a mother tries to keep herself bound to the child whilst at the same time working continuously at teaching her child to become independent, to acquire language and finally, to separate from her. John Lechte interprets the role of this love as necessary for the child to exit the oral and anal phase and to enter the acquisition of language phase.
I believe that it is in the maternal that the abject is most prominent. If we were to itemise the abject, the cycle begins at the onset of pregnancy with the woman's "nausea" also known as morning sickness. There, the abject resides within the visceral substance of the lining of the womb for the duration of the pregnancy.
Grosz interprets Kristevas abject this way:
Like the abject, maternity is the splitting, fusing, merging, fragmenting of a series of bodily processes outside the will or control of the subject 1
The abject surfaces again during the birthing drive with the painful convulsions of the womb known as contractions, the rupture of the membranes and the gushing of the amniotic fluid. Abjection then intensifies with the emergence of a squirming visceral infant possibly via a tear in the womans flesh, as in an episiotomy or in a caesarean section. There, both mother and child face simultaneously and yet not independently, the life and death drives. The umbilical cord, another piece of flesh, is cut with a sharp instrument to initiate the transformation of one being into two. Finally, the placenta, which has been the life- giving force for the infant, is expelled from the womans body, not unlike shit.
Very soon after the birthing process, abjection presents itself with the cause and effect process: mother's breast milk/ infant's shit. For the mother, the infant's shit, as separate from the screams, becomes the most intimate way the child could communicate with her. Through this shit: its colour, consistency and frequency, the mother faces the abject and returns herself to the pre-verbal stage of signs in order to learn and interpret the child's needs. It is at the end of the breast milk/infant's shit phase that another form of abjection takes place: the child's separation from the mother, its acquisition of language and the mapping of its body.
Rosalind Krauss explains:
" the child's losing battle for autonomy is performed as a kind of mimicry of the impassability of the body's own frontier, with freedom coming only delusively as the convulsive, retching evacuation of one's own insides, and thus abjection of oneself." 2
In other words, Krauss alludes to the fact that as a child attempts to separate from its mother it approaches the act of abjection in order to free itself from within. From the time of birth, up until the child begins to form its own identity, it does not distinguish between its own body and that of its mother. Therefore to the infant, the mothers body is an extension or a part of its own, and it remains so until the child recognises firstly its own body parts, then its unified body. As such, the child is driven to expel the mother in order for it to exist. It is as if the child instinctively feels that as long as the mother is within it, it will never be allowed to grow and form an identity. Expulsion of the mothers body is the childs first act of non-corporeal abjection such as sucking, screaming, shitting or vomiting. Therefore, by attempting to understand our relationship to the maternal or indeed trace its origin, we are in fact trying to understand our state of abjection.
Kristeva explains how separation from the mother coincides with the acquisition of language through the negation of the image and the isolated object. In effect, what Kristeva is saying is that, the relationship between a pre-verbal infant's physical world which constitutes its mother's body, and the infant's attempts at formulating language and entering the semiotic, has to reach a state of crisis for the acquisition of language to occur. This is abjection and this is where the process of negating the maternal presence or separating from her, becomes a prerequisite to the child's acquisition of language.
Kristeva goes even further and relates the authority of the semiotic, the system of written and spoken signs, to another very important aspect of a childs socialisation : the mapping of the body.
" Through frustrations and prohibitions, this authority shapes the body into a territory having areas, orifices, points and lines, surfaces and hollows, where the archaic power of mastery and neglect, of the differentiation of proper-clean and improper-dirty, possible and impossible, is impressed and exerted." 3
Therefore, this is where the body and the mapping process become the point upon which all social systems and orders are built. Again Kristeva points out how the mother's body becomes the mediator of the symbolic law organising social relations.
Grosz also explains how abjection serves the post-separation child to connect different parts of its body. In other words, it is necessary to make the child realize that its own toes are connected to its own leg for example, and that the leg belongs to the self. Also that the childs hands, which are touching its own stomach, are all parts of a unified subject called my body. She further explains how understanding abjection involves examining the ways in which the inside and the outside of the body relate, such as with food, or air, and the means by which the childs body becomes a unified whole.
Melanie Kleins psychic analysis of the childs separation from the mother is based upon a field of objects to be fused or split, possessed or destroyed by means of fantasies produced by bodily drives. According to Klein, the first object of aggression for example is not the mother or father, but a series of part-objects breasts, milk, penis, children etc. to which the infant fantasizes the connection of other part-objects mouth, teeth, urine, shit 4. Therefore through these fantasies, the body is mapped and a social order is built upon.
©2001 Mireille Astore
1. Grosz, Elizabeth. Sexual Subversions. Allen & Unwin, Sydney. 1989
2. Krauss, Rosalind. Informe without Conclusion. In October 78, Fall 1996
3. Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror. Columbia University Press, New York 1982
4. Nixon, Mignon. Bad enough mother; psychoanalytic study of the use of the body in contemporary feminist art, in October (Cambridge, Mass) no71, Winter 1995. p. 70-92
Back to Dissertation