Frida Kahlo: Trauma, Abjection, and Affect


Trauma[, the abject and affect are] deeply distressing or disturbing experience[s]; or… physical injury.

Phenomenology is an important (or helpful) theoretical framework when dealing with trauma, the abject and affect. The sensory, the experiential, and the embodied response to images pays close attention to the image itself since the image itself has its own effects. It could be argued that visual imagery catches the gaze of spectators who are affected through looking. An explicit example of trauma, the abject and affect is provided to help prove the intertextuality, or relationality, of all three terms:

Iain Morland analyses affect in terms of intersex and the phenomenology of feeling in order to critically reflect on feelings provoked by anatomies that are customarily regarded as sexually ambiguous, particularly those that have been surgically modified. There is a feeling of being excluded from or included in the world, and this causes an existential crisis: living in a world and sharing it with people whose anatomy differs from your own.

During a search of his collective work about intersex genitalia, Morland’s roommates happened upon medical records discussing this. Their reaction seemed encumbered by morbid fascination and shock. Some phrases and images made his roommates wince with dismay for example: “clitoral resection, penile disassembly, pubic skin flaps, urethral mobilisation, and glans separation”. Certain images - for example photographs depicting swollen and bloody genitalia, sometimes hooked open with metal equipment or freshly stitched together after an incision - were met with short intakes of breath and alarmed exclamations. It is at this moment, after the vivid description of seemingly painful surgery that he refers to the reader by saying: “you, reader, may similarly be wincing as I recount the event”. He points out that his description in such detail was not uncalled for or unwarranted; rather that it is highly significant because it reveals how intersex surgery feels, even to people who have not gone through such surgery, this feeling is uncomfortable.

He tries to explain why intersex surgery is ‘bad’ saying that the motivations for the surgery are not relevant because it involves the parents’ fear of sexual ambiguity and assertion of a male or female sexuality. He argues these things because it causes people to feel bad about this type of surgery; and to feel bad about something happening in the world is to feel uncomfortable with being in the world in the first place. He continues to describe how postsurgical anatomy looks stranger than a presurgical one and feels stranger too not only because of a sense of inauthenticity but also in some cases nerve damage.

It is here where he starts to talk about feelings and shared sentiment (collective trauma), a wince when hearing about penile disassembly was an immediately triggered response. According to Morland, feeling is not merely an unreliable interior reflection of an exterior morality (this can be seen in terms of affect). He talks about the discomfort felt, and more specifically who it is felt by for instance the sight of intersex genitalia causes discomfort for the parents (because of the lack of conviction about child’s gender) as well as by diaper changing friends and family who would encompass feelings of dismay and subsequent gossip.  In 2005, the term intersex was changed to ‘disorders of sex development’ to avoid connotations of sexual and gender identity, which subsequently made these unusual bodies inherently defective. Theses notions can be related to making intersex comfortable as oppose to uncomfortable, however for Morland, living in one’s body does not feel comfortable as if relaxed on a couch because he understands his body to be one’s inescapable point of view on the world, a phenomenological claim that means the world appears to oneself through bodily perception.

In his article he explores the inhabited capacity to be affected by others (as opposed to the ability to affect the world) where one’s own capacity to be affected is impaired. As a perceiving entity the body needs to have the capacity to be affected by the world and to perceive the world at all is to be affected by others. He explains that other people do not feel what he feels and they feel what he does not feel and this is what separates him from the world. He introduces neuroscience here in terms of mirror neurons and how such a process is a neural basis for empathy, so when he says that others feel what he cannot feel, he is talking about materially because their nervous system reacts but his does not. This equates to Maurice Merleau-Ponty where he refers to the inseparability of the perceiving body and the world perceived.

Mirror neuron effects are referred sensations too. They are not limited to individual bodies, but rather refer to sensations in the flesh (in Merleau-Ponty’s sense) that have been surgically injured. It can therefore be seen that the lived experience of intersex is not only personal. He states that the other feels for him, and is thus affected on my behalf. Finally, he continues, it is not possible to elude the affect of another’s lack of their capacity to be affected, because we are the flesh of the world.

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