Female Bodies and Posthumanism 101: Abjection and the Body as a Liminal Space
This series explores the dark and grotesque side of Western mythology by focusing on its monsters. In particular, it will analyze the origins of female monsters and the influence they had and continue to have on Western culture through the lense of Posthumanism. The aim of the series is to expose the connection between women’s bodies and sexuality and their monsterization, which can present itself in different forms, often corresponding to a woman’s main biological life stages — adolescence, adulthood, and menopause. Understanding how female monsters are created unveils the misogynistic constructs at the base of our patriarchal social structure and allows us to dismantle them. Finally, to reveal the skeletons—and other monsters—in our society’s closet is only the first step, as feminist movements have found new possible uses of female monstrous figures by reclaiming them and using them as symbols for their fight.
The series consists of the following six chapters:
1. Female Bodies and Posthumanism 101: Monsters on the Threshold of Becoming
2. Female Bodies and Posthumanism 101: The Psychology of the Monstrous Feminine
3. Female Bodies and Posthumanism 101: Female Sexuality
4. Female Bodies and Posthumanism 101: Abjection and the Body as a Liminal Space
5. Female Bodies and Posthumanism 101: Early Modern Perceptions of the Body
6. Female Bodies and Posthumanism 101: Monsters as Posthuman Feminist Symbols
Abjection and the Body as a Liminal Space
The notion of liminality was introduced by ethnologist Arnold van Gennep in 1909 to explain the state of “in between-ness” during cultural and religious rites, which enables passage between social groupings and different phases of life through ceremony. The moment of transition is the liminal stage, and is characterized by "ambiguity, openness and indeterminacy" and during which "normal limits of thought, self-understanding and behaviors are relaxed, opening the way to something new” (Sharma, 2013, p. 111). Liminal spaces have become an increasingly popular aesthetic, usually represented in the form of hallways, airports, or other similar sites (often empty of people) characterized by a state of transition. Surreal images evoke eeriness and unease, but simultaneously attract the viewer because of how familiar they look.
Liminality, however, is not necessarily an inanimate place: French philosopher and psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva’s theory of abjection draws from the idea of liminality, but applies it to the human—and especially female—body. The abject is also characterized by ambiguity, as it both attracts and repels; it represents a threat but at the same time elicits curiosity.Women's bodies, with their margins and orifices, constitute a liminal space between the concept of the body in its integrity and the outside world, the Self and the non-Self. Kristeva proposes that women’s marginalization stems from their bodies being perceived as abjects: the materiality of their bodily functions and reproductive processes—like the act of birth giving, simultaneously marked by the possibility of life and death—challenge the conceptual distinctions necessary to build and understand reality. The menstruating body, the pregnant body and the old female body are reminders of human fragility and mortality, and thus they are disturbing, a threat to the social order. Philosopher and literary critic Bakhtin, however, in his analysis of the grotesque aesthetic, sees in the abject and its visual manifestations a possibility of renewal, openness and acceptance of humans’ bodily dimension. Women's bodies and the grotesque combine all aspects of life and death and show their inextricable link.
The origin of women’s marginalization as monsters can be found in their closeness to what Kristeva defines as abject. In psychoanalysis, the abject is what causes a reaction of horror to something perceived as a threat to meaning, that signals the blurring of a necessary distinction between subject and object, inside and outside, self and other. Kristeva does not refer to an object, because it still presupposes a relation and a degree of measurable, definable separation from the self/subject, but theorizes the abject as something characterized by exclusion, a place where meaning collapses (Kristeva, 1982, p.2), lacking symbolic order, a place of acceptance of linguistic communication, social conventions, law and intersubjective relations, which gives us the tools to live in society. It represents a “primal repression” that precedes other forms of differentiation and opposition, and the subject’s act of self-definition. Because of its place in our archaic memory, the abject creates a sense of uncanniness: “Not me. Not that. But not nothing, either” (Kristeva, 1982, p.2); its ambiguity lies in being both familiar and foreign to us, in being able to annihilate the subject but also to act as its safeguard, an indispensable condition of existence of symbolic order and establishment of identity.
Kristeva identifies a few examples of abjection: a corpse, bodily fluids, the skin that forms on the surface of warm milk. The repugnance, the sense of nausea that causes gagging at the sight or touch of that skin protects and turns us away from it. The instinct to vomit, and any type of rejection serves as a means to establish oneself. The corpse, wounds and any signs of decay are abject not simply because they signify death (Kristeva notes how the sight of a flat encephalograph—signifying death—would elicit a reaction and possibly acceptance), but because they show what we ignore to continue living, they force us to face our own materiality. Knowledge or meaning of death can exist in the realm of the symbolic, and therefore are not abjects; the materiality of death that contaminates life is instead what causes repulsion. The corpse alters the border between other and self, life and death, it allows one to enter “the place where I am not and which permits me to be” (Kristeva, 1982, p. 3.).
Monsters and women as abjects
Monsters can be read as abjects, as they both enable “the formation of all kinds of identities - personal, national, cultural, economic, sexual, psychological, universal, particular” (Cohen, 1997, p. 19). Any dominant group creates and is defined by the existence of a minority, the Other, the monster, the racialized, sexually deviant, the woman, the poor. Its presence at the borders of society and of the self is a threat to the established order because it is a reminder of the fragility of said order. The monster is assembled from fragments of rejection, it is not created ex nihilo, so it is always present while being pushed away, and inevitably it returns (Cohen, 1997, p. 16). As the abject, it is ambiguous, and as such it cannot be categorized; on the contrary, it represents liminality, resists binarism and threatens to cause the collapse of difference. Monsters are hybrids or mutants, they stand “at the threshold of Becoming” (Cohen, 1997, p. 20) and never materialize in a fixed form. Their body is the site of abjection. Women’s monsterization in particular can be explained through Kristeva’s theory: the possibility of pregnancy and childbirth that is attributed to the female body represents the highest form of abjection, as it blurs the border between life and death as well as that between Self and Other (the mother and the child), and disrupts the imagined margins that define and distinguish one body from another. Such processes become synonyms for danger and vulnerability, and their demonization reflects society’s attempt to enact power over populations through the surveillance of women’s bodies: “because the female body is associated most closely with death processes, authority asserted over a female body is power over the very forces of creation” (Pickard, 2019, p. 249).
However, female monsters also attest to the ambiguity of the abject which, as Kristeva stresses, does not just repulse but also attracts. It is not a matter of desire, since what can cause desire is an identifiable object, but what Kristeva defines “jouissance”, the counterpart to phobia. “One does not know it, one does not desire it, one joys in it [on enjouit]. Violently and painfully. A passion” (Kristeva, 1982, p. 9). Female monsters have been imagined as disgusting and terrifying, but they are often perversely attractive and use their seductive powers to attract men: witches can shapeshift from old hags to young temptresses, Medusa is deadly but seductive, and so are sirens. After all, as Kristeva points out, “many victims of the abject are its fascinated victims—if not its submissive and willing ones” (Kristeva, 1982, p. 9).
The way monsters are imagined and depicted is often described as grotesque, the aesthetic that most accurately represents abjection. Literary critic and philosopher Michail Michajlovič Bakhtin defines the grotesque as “the lowering of all that is high, spiritual, ideal, abstract; it is a transfer to the material level, to the sphere of earth and body in their indissoluble unity” (Bakhtin, 1984, p. 44). If the abject is found in the material and the bodily, the grotesque focuses on bringing to life such “degradation”. It is defined by ambivalence and ambiguity, as it embraces both deadly and life-giving aspects of earth and the body, the material and the maternal: they come in the form of graves and wombs (which are linked, according to Bakhtin), but also create and bring birth and renascence (Bakhtin, 1984, p. 45). This intermeshing of dimensions that are usually kept separate (for instance by laws of purity enacted by religions) is exemplified by the origin of the word itself: “grotesque”, coined in the 16th century, comes from the Italian “grottesco”, a word referring to cave paintings found in ancient Roman ruins which depicted humans, animals, and plants “interwoven as if giving birth to each other” (Bakhtin, 1984, p. 56). Cycles of life, like birth, intercourse, and death come together in a deformed representation of the body in which these are often combined—the monstrous body.
As a body is in a constant state of becoming, it lacks defined borders and is therefore vulnerable to outside threats, its margins are not completely sealed to protect it from contamination. According to Bakhtin, “the grotesque body is not separated from the rest of the world” and it is an “unfinished metamorphosis” (Bakhtin, 1984, p. 48). Inward and outward are merged and interchanged through the display of inner and usually not visible elements of the body, like blood, bowels, and other organs. The portrayal of bodily fluids, orifices and open wounds is what constitutes the gruesome nature of the grotesque element that characterizes the witch and horror movies as a genre, it is what provokes discomfort and disgust in the audience. Finally, the most revolting thing is its closeness to us. At the center of Bakhtin’s theorization of the grotesque aesthetic lies its regenerative power. The collapse of boundaries allows the acceptance of death as a part of life, and consequently recognizes their interdependence and their regenerating powers. Instead of casting aside or trying to purify it, the grotesque emphasizes the abject, and according to Bakhtin “this exaggeration has a positive, assertive character” (Bakhtin, 1984, p. 43), as it allows the possibility of catharsis and provides the tools to deal with abjection without ostracizing it, but by recognizing it as a part of human reality.
Kristeva’s theorization of abjection helps us understand the liminality inherent to bodies, whose orifices represent a breach in the border that separates the body from the outside world. Women’s bodies represent the ultimate abjection, since physiological functions like childbirth represent the breakdown of boundaries between life and death, Self and the Other, and their power to still attract—apparent in the sexualized representation of female monsters—is a further source of discomfort and anxiety. However, just like liminal spaces, the abject and the grotesque are not merely about exclusion and disruption, but also about openness and possibility. Like Bakhtin states, the grotesque has a promising and positive nature, as it ends up being revelatory rather than oppressive, an opportunity for renewal and acceptance. Female monsters can thus cease to be scary and instead become a possible model of liberation against women’s marginalization, as well as acknowledgement of humanity's material and earthly nature.
Bakhtin, M. (1984). Rabelais and his world. (Iswolsky Hélène, Trans.). Indiana University Press.
Cohen, J. J. (1997). Monster theory: Reading culture. University of Minnesota Press.
Kristeva, J. (1982). Powers of horror: An essay on abjection. Columbia University Press.
Pickard, S. (2019). On becoming a HAG: Gender, ageing and abjection. Feminist Theory, 21(2), 157–173. https://doi.org/10.1177/1464700119859751
Sharma, M. (2013). The liminality of contemporary culture. Bodhi: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 6, 109–119. https://doi.org/10.3126/bodhi.v6i0.9247
Turner, B. S. (2003). Social fluids: Metaphors and meanings of society. Body & Society, 9(1), 1–10. https://doi.org/10.1177/1357034x030091001
Cover Image. Cooper, J. R. (2013). Viral Series II. [Ceramics]. Retrieved from: http://www.jessrivacooper.com/#/viral-series/
Figure 1. Wan, B. (2022). Untitled. [Photograph]. Retrieved from: https://www.cbc.ca/radio/ideas/liminal-space-popularity-1.6365390
Figure 2. Stoller, J. (2014). Untitled (still life). [Porcelain sculpture]. Retrieved from: https://www.culturedmag.com/article/2020/08/10/jessica-stoller-porcelain-sculptures
Figure 3. Campbell, K. and Lund, G. (2019). Matrilineal Threads. [Art installation]. Retrieved from: https://canadianart.ca/features/the-feminine-the-grotesque-and-the-reclaimed/
Figure 4. Cooper, J. R. (2013). Viral Series. [Ceramics]. Retrieved from: http://www.jessrivacooper.com/#/viral-series/