Frida Kahlo: Trauma, Abjection, and Affect


Trauma is a deeply distressing or disturbing experience; or a physical injury.

Abjection is not an easily defined concept. According to Julia Kristeva, the abject requires doubts and captivates desire. The abject includes the improper or unclean, for example, food loathing and the corpse. Kristeva also suggests that it is not the lack of cleanliness that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, systems and order. Phil Powrie uses the abject to describe a film (as complacent pessimism) and suggests that the abject is a liminal state. He applies Kristeva’s idea of fear and loathing, and also of attraction to the pre-Oedipal state, to explain the link of abjection to the lack of control and helplessness. According to Kristeva, the corpse upsets the subject more than:

"A wound with blood and pus, or the sickly, acrid smell of sweat, of decay, does not signify death… refuse and corpses show me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live. These body fluids, this defilement, this shit are what life withstands, hardly and with difficulty, on the part of death. There, I am at the border of my condition as a living being. My body extricates itself, as being alive, from that border. Such wastes drop so that I might live, until, from loss to loss, nothing remains in me and my entire body falls beyond the limit—cadere, cadaver."
According to Mireille Astore’s interpretation of Kristeva, abjection is not so much physical as it is a disruption of identity, a state of crisis. For example, existential isolation and alienation, as well as a radical separation of the sexes constitute abjection. Not only is abjection a relationship to: “… vomit, shit, and the corpse… [but also] a whole set of systems… [for example] religion”. Abjection is not an object. Rather, abjection relies on affect and opposes the subject because it threatens its identity. Although a subject desires its meaning, it draws one into a place where meaning collapses. In this way the abject is both fearsome and fascinating.

According to Linda Zerilli, the feeling of disgust caused by the corpse or menstrual blood is the body’s psychic reaction to the abject – to that which confounds/confuses the body’s limits as well as the borders of identity: “[i]t is a refusal of the defiling, impure, uncontrollable materiality of a subject's embodied existence”. Rituals of defilement control the line between nature and culture and are used to ‘excrete’ the idea that a subject’s identity is turning into a maternal entity. Although the affect of abjection can be mortifying, one needs to be aware that the subject does not cut off what threatens it – the abject – but rather recognises and accepts it to be perpetual danger. In many instances it is difficult to look away, and in fact would sometimes leave us wanting to see more of this ambiguous abject, the Other, because of its affective power over the subject. It leaves a person with a certain jouissance, a sense of horror and pleasure; this intrigue is what gives impetus to the abject.

According to both Kristeva and Powrie the abject can be considered as defilement or pollution, exclusion or taboo, transgressions and archaic resonances, corruption, the abyss, perversion, and narcissism. The abject is a liminal state of subjecthood and includes characteristics of repulsion. The abject repels, rejects, repels itself, and rejects itself; it mimics and is therefore seen as affective. When abjection mimics, or repeats, it reflects a different register of what initially was unsaid; it shatters verbal communications and thus relies on visuality to affect and to repel. A subject is affected by an effect – something that does not appear as a thing – because of political, social and economical systems that govern and condition the subject.

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