In Hal Foster’s famous essay on art and the abject – first published in October in 1996 as Obscene, Abject, Traumatic,1which he decided to re-publish as the first chapter of his new essay collection Bad New Days (2015) – he glosses Jacques Lacan’s ideas about the gaze. Foster points out that there is a reciprocal, confusing and dangerous relation between subject and object: ‘the subject is also under the regard of the object [...] Lacan imagines the gaze not only as maleficent but as violent, a force that can arrest, even kill, if it is not disarmed’.
Foster believes that contemporary art is unlike previous forms of art-making in that it aims not to ‘pacify’ the violent gaze of the object but to evoke it and enjoy it as a kind of sublime desublimation (‘in all the glory (or the horror) of its pulsatile desire’).
Foster locates an example of this ‘shift from the image-screen [...] to the object-gaze’ – an attentiveness to and even pleasure in the object’s malevolent power, to the ‘envy of objection’ – in the practices of Cindy Sherman, Mike Kelley and others, specifically in their evocations of damaged, child-like or grotesque body processes. The object-gaze annihilates the subject’s specificity and interiority, rendering it animal, just flesh. You are a thing among things, says the gaze of the object, according to Lacan, according to Foster.
Foster cites Julia Kristeva’s ‘enigmatic’ phrase: ‘In a world in which the Other has collapsed …’ Later in this text, Foster aligns abject contemporary art with ‘the general culture of abjection’, specifically ‘the culture of slackers and losers, grunge and Generation X.’ This (white) culture valorizes misery, ‘drawn not to the highs of the simulacral image but to the lows of the depressive thing’. After a brief mention of a ‘broken social contract’, he goes on to suggest that ‘if there is a subject of history for the culture of abjection at all, it is not the Worker, the Woman, the Person of Color, but the Corpse.’ The social contract to which Foster refers is, of course, not really broken: it is the same foundationally anti-black and racist, patriarchal and cissexist social contract that capitalist society has long offered. The period in which the abject art that Foster categorizes coincides with a long and intense counter-insurgency struggle by the US state, freaked out a little by the white student activism of the 1960s but most deeply shaken, by its agents’ own admission, by black liberation groups such as the Black Panthers and even the black campus radicals who agitated for the introduction of Black Studies programmes into American academia.
Government attempts at repression focused on black struggle rather than white activism not only because of some special ideological or affective racism (although often that too) but because the USA is literally founded, financially, materially and psychically, on the enslavement and exclusion of black people. Sherman and Kelley’s images circulate in a real world of COINTELPRO surveillance, the crack epidemic and the ‘war on drugs’, stop and frisk, the fantasy black welfare queen and so on. They are produced against a backdrop of a massive expansion in the US prison population – a 700% increase between 1970 and 2005 – disproportionately affecting black people (as Andrea Fraser’s upcoming work at the Whitney seeks to elucidate). The specificity of the contemporary (post-slavery, post-colonial) as opposed to the modern (slavery, colonization) is that the ‘collapse of the Other’ is eternally promised and threatened through the operations of the subjectivity that needs this Other for its mirror. This subjectivity has to disavow its own violent impulses like a child scared of accidentally abolishing its mother.
American prisons are overwhelmingly black, American poverty is overwhelmingly black, American ‘abjection’ is overwhelmingly black. But contemporary art is overwhelmingly white, seeming to only register blackness as either an aesthetic modulation or a species of ‘identity politics’, or in other arcane ways that suggest some kind of troubled non- relation. The artist E. Jane has drawn attention to Cindy Sherman’s use of blackface in her Bus Riders series, in a 2015 research project collected on Twitter under the hashtag Cindygate. E. Jane comments in a tweet, ‘My best guess: [Sherman] was not thinking about the black viewer.’ Despite representing blackness schematically, as blackface, Sherman’s work disavows the possibility of a black viewer. The object-gaze of blackness limns white abjection, providing it with a constitutive threat, a frontier, a distinction.
A periodization of white American contemporary art that took its measure not from the white family (the picket-fence hetero-1950s followed by the wild, Pill-fuelled 1960s, etc) but from the vagaries of black insurgency might take into account the same figureheads – Kelley, Sherman – but would read them more urgently. This is not a call to read white artists as evil agents of hegemonic thought – though their prominence can get tiring – but just a suggestion that art as a seismic register of the vibrations of the contemporary might also have picked up the vast cataclysm of US and indeed global anti-blackness. This is just a suggestion that the construction, maintenance and allocation of blackness could become as prominent in white theory as they have long been in white wealth.
The theorist Rey Chow writes, working through Frantz Fanon: ‘I want to argue that it is actually the colonizer who feels looked at by the native’s gaze. This gaze, which is neither a threat nor a retaliation, makes the colonizer “conscious” of himself, leading to his need to turn this gaze around and look at himself, henceforth “reflected” in the native-object. It is the self-reflection of the colonizer that produces the colonizer as subject (potent gaze, source of meaning and action) and the native as his image, with all the pejorative meanings of the word “black” attached to the word “image”.’2 The image-screen must not go black. Black abjection’s essential role in the construction of non-black and especially white subjectivity is a theory so well-explicated that I could attribute it to ten different theorists, and that’s just from my own personal canon. And yet it so rarely appears in white theorists’ accounts of our supposedly shared psychic structure (although many of the men have learned by now, albeit grudgingly, that gender is socially real and therefore might have to make some kind of appearance in a total social theory).
Foster’s essay is compelling because he almost goes there – to the plantation, to the prison, to the ghetto, to the colony, to the skin of the real body – just as Lacan seems to almost go there. Periodized through blackness, the tense stand-off between the potentially violent object-gaze that must be civilized, tamed, or spectacularized clearly resembles the native or slave’s mute gaze at the master. This unanswerable gaze – the unanswerable question we might ask of whiteness, which is ‘what is my race?’ – is a reminder that from the perspective of a certain catastrophic subjectivity there is not only ‘no sexual relationship’, to quote Lacan’s famous phrase, but no relationship at all beyond the brief fulfilments of transaction. It’s hard to empathize with because it’s too easy to sympathize with: the pathology of the too-intact subject. Of course this too-coherent self fantasizes a loss of cohesion. Foster reads in the intensity of Sherman’s evocations of hurt or leaking bodies a reaching-beyond the abject, into ‘the informe, a condition described by Bataille where […] the fundamental distinction between figure and ground, self and other is lost’.
Race, as so many theorists from Sylvia Wynter and Fanon to Frank Wilderson III and Fred Moten have shown, is the distinction that upholds the false integrity of the self. From the position of this false integrity, ‘the collapse of the Other’ must look like the part in Genesis before God spoke the first words: ‘the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.’ But this incoherence is no more truthful (I choose to believe this) than the false coherence it subtends. Moten, the pre-eminent theorist of this impasse between object and subject, writes (in the 2015 essay To Feel, To Feel More, To Feel More Than) of a blur in between, the blur that he finds in black sociality but not only there: ‘the glow and blur of the collective head’s collective embrace, more precisely and properly valued in its disruption of valuation, in its radical unbankability’. I think that we could all go deeper into this collective head, but for now art says as much as life does that we don’t know how.
1 Of course nothing is really abject: there is no outside of the world.
2 I am afraid of spiders, and sometimes I can control the fear by telling myself, absurdly, ‘The spider is part of your body. The spider is part of your body’. Freud thought that fear of spiders was connected to having a neurotic mother and revealed a deeper fear, of indeterminately gendered genitalia. I found a line scrawled in an old notebook, a thought experiment: ‘You must not be your mother’s body.’ Now I see two senses here: the injunction (‘don’t be your mother’s body’), and the critical assessment (‘you don’t look like your mother’s body’). Like many bad daughters, I tried and failed to be a good mother to my mother. The spider is part of my body.
3a) I remember the vividly coloured shit that my sister produced, as a tiny newborn baby, when she was first brought home from the hospital. The shit, as much as her narrowed eyes and seeking mouth, was proof that she would grow up to be a person. I also remember the woman in the maternity ward who seemed very distressed by the experience of giving birth; we could hear her crying through the curtain between the beds and saying about her baby, ‘I hate it, it did a shit inside me’. Over 20 years later I still feel troubled by that woman’s tears and I really hope she and her child found their way OK. I don’t know if she had in mind that newborn shit isn’t really shit, because they haven’t eaten anything yet.
b) As a teenager on hands and knees cleaning up after my grandfather’s beloved and dying dog and retching from the smell, I thought, I love this dog. This is love.
c) A friend attempted to describe his tentative feelings of love for his baby, and summed them up as: ‘His shit is clean’. Conclusion: The dirtiness of shit makes its cleanliness a measure of love.
4 I have never been able to directly eroticize shit, but I feel ambivalently drawn to the idea of people who are able to: they impress and disgust me. My first successful poem was called something like, Coprophiliac on Holiday, a fictionalized version of a real-life trip to see cave paintings somewhere in France that won a prize. I was about 14 when I wrote it. It’s only now, writing this, that I see some kind of logic to the mysterious linkage: the cave itself is like an anus, secret/public, full/empty. D. W. Winnicott writes endearingly of babies that they never want to waste an experience, giving the example that a baby will wait until someone else is in the room to fill their diaper. I feel so moved by this hypothetical baby, waiting anxiously to be able to communicate, waiting to have something to give.
5 Every few years I end up reading about the Khmer Rouge, life pared down to below the bone, to the marrow of the bone, e.g. the teaspoons of shit they fed prisoners, as torture. I have no connection to Cambodia and I don’t know why I feel responsible for remembering this/if I have the right to write it: a web-searched fragment wrenched out of other people’s lives, so decontextualized here (and in me) that I can’t assess its weight. Nor can I weigh the handfuls of shit in the slave plantations of the Caribbean and the US South, though I know the story of how failed escapees were sometimes forced to eat it. These fragments hover in the middle distance: can’t get rid of them and can’t do anything with them.
6 I was surprised and grossed out to see the pathologically white association between blackness and shit surface in an Yvonne Rainer film, Privilege (1990): ‘How shit gets connected with blackness-as-badness. What happens between black people and their shit?’ What does the character imagine might happen? Shit is not my primary association with brown: brown is a warm and protective colour. In the book Seven Days in the Art World I read that collectors don’t like brown paintings, and in an interview, Carol Rama responds to a question about the colour brown with an enthusiastic and weird answer about her own pleasure in shitting: ‘When I shit I have the impression I feel really good, but it’s probably not true’.
7 Many of us grew up with gifts of shit, exhortations to remember grotesque accidents of fate that happened long before we were born. I call them shit but they are yet to be digested. Thus the corpse of the Holocaust is still dragged around Europe and Israel, deeply dishonoured now. Differently, trans-atlantic slavery still sticks to the skin. The cuts between land and community, between community and self (the piercing of the hole of the individual into the fabric of the social, as Fred Moten imagines it) that inaugurated and maintain capitalism, are still arguably present in white supremacy’s simultaneous horror/fascination with good lineage and bad origin, with identity and difference. For history to be digested, an easy metaphor, we have to be able to tolerate its transformation into shit. The cities of western Europe and those built in their image are shit, its art is shit, its cultures are smeared in shit. Art has sometimes been a place where it is possible to know that there is nothing worth saving.
8 In LA, a Black and homeless city, a man chatted to me on the bus, and said with pride and irony, knowing I would think I knew something: ‘I am a product of Watts’. Clean-shaven art bros with dilated pupils told me, ‘I love LA!’ The city has been a primary site of white supremacist class war, a laboratory for experiments in control, a ‘dream factory’ for bleached-white dreams. I turned a corner and saw an unmistakeably human shit sitting in the middle of the sidewalk, near a little fortress of tents and cardboard structures.
A Black man swung the pendant on his necklace, a little Earth, and told us (me and the two white men standing with me): ‘We’ve been here for years … We’ve been here for thousands of years.’ I know, I said, because I think I know something.
I take unwarranted credit for these fragments by writing them down. I gather them in and I make them something less than they were.
9 Would it be better to think about dishonour rather than abjection..? The solution to abjection is easy: make them put up with your shit! But atonement (for producing the abject, by making something abject) should not be easy. If rich white people ever ask my advice, that’s the advice I give them: nothing you have is rightfully yours, so act accordingly. For some reason, they hardly ever ask!
10 Periodization of the abject; periodization of the rage and shame of women.
The long, embattled history of women in capitalism: burned as witches, Silvia Federici says, to forge a rootless proletariat (women as roots), then made systemically sexually available for men’s solace or comfort. Saidiya Hartman finds a slave-ship Venus in the archives and names her the vanishing-point of history. In proletarianized Europe, at sea and in the new-sprung colonies, a long campaign of rape begins, which is to say, the long conflation of mother with origin/home, and her attendant annihilation. A story in broad sweeps, and not without its dumb and heavy-handed romance. The task of the mother is to hold the false coherence of history in her mind.
1 Hal Foster, Obscene, Abject, Traumatic, in: October 78, Autumn 1996, pp. 107–124.
2 Rey Chow, Writing Diaspora: Tactics of Intervention in Contemporary Cultural Studies (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993), p. 51.