The Film Effect IV

Notes on Medusa’s Gaze: The Power of Abjection in Film

Medusa’s identity as a chthonic gorgon introduces us to the idea of abjection as something debased (chthonic, deriving from the Greek khthõn ‘earth’) yet very powerful. Indeed, it is because of her monstrous and lowly identity that Medusa is so powerful. She turns those who gaze at her into stone, and so we are safer if we keep her in the ‘underworld’ or subconscious of our thoughts. As in Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), the most frightening and final abjection, the skeletal Mother, is kept in the basement of the home. In The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard aligns the upper rooms of a house with clarity of thought, and its cellar with dreaming and irrationality.[1] If the upper floors are the Ego, then the cellar is the Id, into which uncoordinated and disruptive thoughts are jettisoned.

The home is often used in film to deal with abjection because it illustrates the mind: its upstairs and cellar are the conscious and subconscious; windows, gaze and perception; walls, the mind’s internalised social boundaries, and so forth. We are all composites of order and disorder, substances we consider clean and ‘dirty’. Likewise, the home can appear both a haven and an unhomely site of abjection and the unheimlich. In Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), the character played by Gene Hackman encounters the nadir of the home, the eye into ultimate abjection: the toilet bowl. The clean bowl fills up with blood before his eyes, brimming at the rim before spilling uncontrollably over the edge and across the bathroom floor towards him. This is the ultimate horror: the outcast returning to haunt us. In Psycho, Norman Bates tries to clean the bathroom of blood, as does Lady Macbeth her hands, but in both cases the abject substance that has resulted from their evils refuses to go away.

In these examples the abject is something quite literal – a tangible substance that causes recoil: blood, excrement, saliva, monsters. But abjection is not always this illustratable; in Julia Kristeva’s essay Approaching Abjection, it is described as something that ‘disturbs identity, system, order’.[2] Thus, the abject does not have to be the skeleton in the cellar, but simply the metaphorical space of the cellar: that which is unknowable and defies verbalisation. In horror films, as in life, we both enjoy and fear encountering the abject. As Slavoj Zizek says, we watch horror films in pleasurable expectation of what will emerge from the toilet bowl and correspond with our exiled thoughts.[3] Likewise, we take pleasure in visiting Haunted House fairground attractions, gothic cemeteries (the cemetery, like the basement, is exiled out of the main centre of dwelling), and Red Lights Districts (confined to certain zones within towns), and cannot avoid craning our necks to gaze at a traffic accident or road-kill as we drive past. This desire to get close to abjection is what Kristeva calls ‘the pangs and delights of masochism’.[4] Abjection exists on a border that is invisible and intangible, between ourselves and the Other; in this sense, everyone’s tolerance or border-line of abjection will be different, though often broadly similar. Existing beyond the border, the Other is that which is incomprehensible and omnipotent. The fascination with abjection and death derives from the fact that they feel ‘other’ to us, yet we know they are within us always: the abject is at once ‘unapproachable and intimate’.[5] We all harbour energies that we repress, be they anger, jouissance or the enjoyment of substances deemed ‘unclean’, and so encounters with the abject correspond to our inner instances of it. The abject film allows is a vent for our abject desires. In this way, the abject is like the sublime: it both draws and repels us. In the same manner that we enjoy attempting to comprehend the sublime, but are also terrified by its boundlessness, encountering abjection is pleasurable and horrific at once. Part of the attraction is that abjection exists in a liminal space between something acceptable, comprehendible, and living, and something beyond all comprehension: death. Although we dispose of hair, nails, urine and other ‘rubbish’ that is no longer part of us, we find ourselves drawn to it too; perhaps because it reminds us of death, the Medusa-like god that we cannot look at fully.

Steve McQueen’s Hunger

So if depictions of abject substances such as blood are rather too illustrative of a state that is characterised by incomprehensibility and ambiguity, perhaps conventional horror films are less horrifying than we think. In visualising the abject, surely the filmmaker tames it. Although Thomas Hirschorn uses explicit news footage from the Iraq war and pornographic fashion advertising in his Ur-Collages, he composes them in such a formalistic way that their colours and patterns abstract them. They appear like billboards or pop-up windows on the Internet that force-feed us objectified, dehumanised images. Only on closer inspection do we begin to recognise a maimed head or pile of intestines – and still the whole evades us because we cannot sustain our gaze at something so explicit. In this way, the true abject is not the blood or sex as such, but what they stand for: something censored and incomprehensible.

Thomas Hirschorn

A filmic parallel to this is Steve McQueen’s Hunger (2008), a dramatisation of the 1981 Irish hunger strike led by Bobby Sands. Scenes of excrement being smeared upon the walls of Maze prison, strikers being beaten, searched internally, and starving to death are as difficult to view as Hirschorn’s collages, but the larger form of abjection is in fact a social and political one. Much of the film, particularly in the first half, is devoid of dialogue, reflecting the fact that the situation has passed the possibility of verbal negotiation and can only be resolved through gesture. The strikers employ tools of abjection to disrupt the prison’s order, and as a consequence, the nation’s. In one scene, the prison corridor is suddenly made shiny from urine that seeps from under the cells’ doors. Presumably all the prisoners emptied their buckets at once. Another scene – one of the most striking of the film – sets the static camera at the end of the corridor in a perspectival matrix whose symmetry is only disturbed by the movement of a prison guard who works his way down the corridor, sweeping the urine towards us and back into the cells as he comes. The abject substance of political revolt refuses to disappear, instead fulfilling Zizek’s prophesy of retuning. The scene echoes an earlier work made by McQueen, Five Easy Pieces (1995) in which the audience is debased when the camera – positioned pointing upwards on the floor – is urinated upon by a standing figure. On finishing, the figure spits into the urine (which by now ‘screens’ the entire screen in a patina) and walks away. The gestures of urinating and spitting degrade the camera, which usually occupies a privileged position of omniscience and elevation. Here, McQueen shows that reality is as much about the abject as it is rationality and propriety; he echoes Georges Bataille’s notion that reality is an unclear and possibly ‘unclean’ form rather like ‘a spit in the soup’.[6]

Steve McQueen’s Hunger

The gestures made in Hunger are extreme: violence, refusal of food, and death. The scene of Bobby Sands lying on his white deathbed, no longer accompanied by his roommate and too weak to speak even to himself, illustrates the abject state of being that is beyond verbalisation. Sands is on the abject threshold between life and death. As Kristeva says, the abject draws one ‘to a place where meaning collapses’,[7] suggesting the futility of conventional communication or comprehension at times of extreme political or physical disruption. Sands slips in and out of consciousness, a scene of birds in flight is superimposed upon his, suggesting his slippage ‘under’ into dream, irrationality and death. Perhaps the birds are his rational Ego, exiting his body. Catholicism considers suicide a sin, condemning Sands’ immanent death to an even greater extent: in a scene that precedes his deathbed one, a priest warns Sands that a hunger strike resulting in death is the greatest debasement he can inflict on himself. Although Sands and the priest are ‘on the same side’, the priest’s words actually echo Margaret Thatcher’s, whose voice is heard on the soundtrack, railing against the strikers: ‘they have turned their violence against themselves’. The hunger strikers’ decision to refuse food is definitely this, but on the other hand, their choice is an act of self-definition: in refusing to take in food – and with it, the authority’s control – the strikers echo Kristeva who describes avoiding ‘the shame of compromise, of being in the middle of treachery’.[8] Kristeva says self-differentiation is achieved through refusal, using the example of food: ‘I abject myself within the same motion through which “I” claim to establish myself’.[9] The mother gives food to the baby, and one of the baby’s first acts of differentiation from her is in deciding when and when not to accept it. Religion also uses rejection of certain foodstuffs (for instance during Lent) to define itself and its beliefs. Although the deathbed scene begins with a shot of a syringe sliding into Sands’ hand, transgressing his skin’s political barrier of self, his emaciated and retching body signals that he is beyond feeding. In the latter half of the film, to coincide with the weakness incurred by hunger, scenes’ durations lengthen, and action within them changes from violence to slower gestures of injections, turning in bed and lying motionless. McQueen signals the passage of hours and days through a sequence of shots in which nothing is altered other than the type of food placed on a bedside tray. The food remains untouched, and  death draws closer. The camera is positioned high up in the corner of the room as if we are looking on from a more rational point of view. This position underlines our feeling of helplessness; we know the fate of the ten hunger strikers from news footage and history books. If the abject is that which lies beyond comprehension, it denies meaning, refusing it like a foodstuff. Kristeva speaks of refusal or absence as ‘a weight of meaninglessness’[10] that denies a coherence that is expected. As when Bartelby refuses to comply with his boss’ orders in Melville’s story, a simple gesture of refusal can thoroughly disrupt.

While one might argue that the strikers’ suicides are a conscious and political decision, and therefore not abject (that which is beyond consciousness), the scene of Sands’ final days in which he is semi-conscious and hallucinating images of birds demonstrates that abjection has returned to claim him for ever. Sands elicited the abject as a political gesture, and elicited so much (in going on hunger strike) that the abject came to claim him in death. The strikers become cadavers (cadere ‘to fall’), falling completely into debasement in death. While food was rejected, the abjection of excrement and corpses was embraced because it could ‘encroach upon everything’[11] and thus disrupt Irish and British politics.

In a very different take on abjection, David Cronenberg’s film Videodrome (1983), the protagonist Max Renn also finds himself taken over by abjection, in this instance in the form of corporate video technology that is so powerful it is beyond comprehension. Renn is mediated by television to such an extent that it becomes reality for him. A slot opens up in his stomach in which videocassettes can be inserted like ‘plug-in’ brains. Here, optical technology becomes visceral, deformed and nightmarish; Renn’s body grows indistinguishable from the machine. Cronenberg plays on an idea that technology affects a person mentally and that this mental alteration converts into physical symptoms. Thus tumours and lesions are direct results of mediality. In the context of the 1980s and AIDS, the monstrous reproduction between uncontrollable elements of body (blood, tumours) and technology (omniscient television sets that control Renn) reflect the social anxiety about untraceable and uncontrollable disease. In his essay on Cronenberg, Steven Shaviro uses the parasite as a metaphor for this type of powerful form that is neither separate from nor fully integrated with the body.[12] His metaphor could be extended to include the powerful contamination of Capitalism into our lives, embodied in Cronenberg’s film by the Video industry. When we watch film, we flinch or grimace at violence, and extrapolating from this, it is not hard to imagine our bodies becoming so mediated by what we view that they merge into the viewing technology itself. In making such visceral and bloody films, Cronenberg makes us feel like Renn, engulfed by the abject. 

David Cronenberg’s Videodrome

We are extremely permeable to media; some of our gestures are influenced by the technology we use: we might explain something and use a scrolling or clicking motion as if on a computer, for example. Eventually, our thumbs might grow pointed to allow for easier use of keypads, and one day, following Videodrome’s logic, we could have slots for videos (or microchips) in our stomachs. Technology is becoming increasingly cybernetic, making us feel as if response if being extracted constantly and violently, to feed a voracious Capitalist system. One of the most frightening things in this idea, as in Videodrome, is that ‘there is no stable position […] no hypostasized, absolute Otherness’[13] but instead a protagonist or self that is also monster, machine and Other. The border between ourselves and a horrific Other is constantly encroached.

‘Cronenberg remarks that “the very purpose” of his films is “to show the unshowable, to speak the unspeakable”. Nothing is hidden.’[14] But it feels as if in trying to show the abject, Cronenberg misses it. While it is true that ‘nothing is hidden’ in the sense of blood or technology, these elements are only illustrations of something far larger and more abstract – a social, political and personal desire and anxiety. While Videodrome provokes interesting, horrifying and entertaining ideas, it is too diagrammatic. Real abjection is more closely evoked in McQueen’s Hunger, where death has the final word and only appears through its victims’ bodies. While one could argue that Cronenberg also shows technology and capitalism through its victim’s body (Renn’s video-slot), the objectification of technology and capitalism in a videocassette makes the abject reduce into a comedic gag, something we can dismiss more easily as ‘fantasy’ than we can the non-fictional abject in Hunger. But as Shaviro says, Cronenberg is absolutely conscious of his overliteralisation of media theorists such as McLuhan and Baudrillard.[15] In the same way that Grace Jones intensifies the corporate strategies that threaten to oppress her as a way of undermining them, Cronenberg intensifies and acts out theories, employing Hollywood-type illusionism of special effects, in order to test them. If we see little we recognise in his films, then so be it, but more often than not they strike us as pleasurably and horrifyingly close to the truth.
In both Hunger and Videodrome, ‘the cinematic gaze is violently embedded in the flesh’[16]. We cannot distance ourselves from their subject matter because their cinematic norms of perspectival shots that position us ‘in the line of fire’ (or urine, in Hunger) and special effects, which make us wince with empathy, overwhelm us: we cannot occupy a fully rational position because the films grab hold of our visceral senses.

[1] Bachelard, G (1958) The Poetics of Space
[2] Kristeva, J (1982) ‘Approaching Abjection’ in Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection
[3] Zizek, S in Fiennes, S (dir) (2006) The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema
[4] Kristeva. Op. cit.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Bataille, G (1931) The Solar Anus
[7] Kristeva. Op. cit.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Shaviro, S (1993) ‘Bodies of Fear’ in The Cinematic Body (Theory Out Of Bounds)
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Ibid.

with thanks to Maxa Zoller.