Abjection as ‘Singular Politics’ in Janet Frame’s The Carpathians

1This article extends recent work on the political implications of Julia Kristeva’s work, notably Cecilia Sjöholm’s Kristeva and the Political, through a reading of Janet Frame’s last novel, The Carpathians. My intention is twofold: to ground Sjöholm’s analysis of Kristeva in a concrete cultural example, and to redetermine Frame’s significance as a postcolonial writer implicated in the potentialities of politics and social change. Rather than granting automatic political and social importance to abjection, Sjöholm and Frame signal a fresh perspective on the very relationship of the abject to politics, which points towards a notion of politics disimplicated from standard assumptions about its operations.

2For my purposes here, I am defining abjection (following Kristeva) as that concern with borderline states that subtends the psychic mechanisms by which the subject establishes itself in relationship to others. Abjection references, more specifically, an original failure of separation from the pre-Oedipal space of the mother, although this archaic situation is subsequently transposed, as Kristeva argues at length in Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, into various dramas of dietary regulation, bodily disgust, ‘shady’ behaviour, and the like. “It is thus not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite” (Kristeva 4). Abjection is the simultaneously horrified and ecstatic discovery by the subject that what lies without also lies within, that to be one is also to be an other. Not that one necessarily lives on the edge, but that the edge is what makes us live.

3Kristeva also calls the abject and abjection “the primers of my culture,” and this is as good a point as any from which to commence an investigation into the cultural and political effects of her notions of subject formation (Kristeva 2). The word ‘primer’ is semantically rich, suggesting as it does ‘an introduction’, a ‘preparation’, or ‘the quality of being first.’ But which is it for Kristeva? And more to the point, do any of these various meanings rise to the challenge of describing a powerful connection between abjection and the ‘community of subjects’ that constitutes the privileged arena of political activity? This has been a key issue in Kristevan studies at least as far back as 1985, when Toril Moi voiced her concerns that


Kristeva is unable to account for the relations between the subject and society. ... She seems essentially to argue that the disruption of the subject … prefigures or parallels revolutionary disruptions of society. But her only argument in support of this contention is the rather lame one of comparison or homology. Nowhere are we given a specific analysis of the actual social or political structures that would produce such a homologous relationship between the subjective and the social (Moi 171).

5Sjöholm enters at this juncture, with a new take on the question of Kristeva’s political effectiveness, which results, as I shall demonstrate, in a sharper perspective on what it might mean for abjection to be considered as a ‘cultural primer’. In a move that comprehensively outflanks the critique disseminated by Moi and others, which is that Kristeva’s theory stalls at the level of the individual subject or discrete work of art, Sjöholm argues that


Rather than promoting an apolitical and naïve belief in artistic revolt, which she has often been accused of, [Kristeva’s] theorisation of the semiotic, of the pre-Oedipal, of the intimate, etc. draws the consequences of a sustained displacement of the political from the universal towards the singular: art and psychoanalysis (Sjöholm 126).

7Sjöholm makes the case for a reconfiguration of the concept of politics itself, such that the violences that Universalist ideals inflict on marginal political actors are evaded through recourse to the fresh notion of a ‘singular politics’. Sjöholm shifts the scene of the political wholesale. Although Spinoza is not mentioned by name in Kristeva & the Political, the influence of his endlessly provocative question ‘What can a body do?’ can be felt between the lines of Sjöholm’s argument (Spinoza Part III, Proposition II, Note). The body is, in this way of thinking, a primer of culture in the strong sense of a continual provocation to culture, one that pushes out the boundaries of what is possible—politically possible—in the cultural realm.

8Janet Wilson’s paper ‘The Abject and the Sublime: Enabling Conditions of New Zealand’s Postcolonial Identity’ skips over the problem of how, precisely, a Kristevan politics might bridge the gap between textual and/or individualistic concerns and New Zealand society. Wilson’s analysis seems to default to a version of the argument from “comparison or homology” that Moi takes to task (Moi 171). For example, Wilson claims that “the nation, New Zealand, can be imaged as the emergent subject” (Wilson 304) and even that “New Zealand’s colonisation, like that of Australia and Canada and perhaps Singapore, can be described in terms of parent-child relations” (Wilson 300). One of the texts considered from within this framework is Janet Frame’s The Carpathians. Wilson is constrained, however, by her notion of the political as necessarily operational at the macro level of the nation and society, and she thereby overlooks the aspect of Frame’s novel that adheres to Sjöholm’s analysis of the ‘micro’ or ‘singular’ politics that circulates on a subterranean stratum throughout Kristeva’s philosophy.

9The Carpathians is a complex text that links New Zealand’s postcolonial concerns to discourses of myth and science fiction, and to an interrogation of the impossibility of defending any single position of narrative or cultural authority. At the simplest level, it tells the story of Mattina Brecon, an American, who travels to small-town New Zealand and finds herself caught up in a catastrophe of identity and cultural disintegration. The point I want to make here by leaving out much in the way of the actual plot of the novel is that, while it is possible to isolate aspects of a community politics in this novel (for example, in Frame’s portrait of a marae or traditional Maori gathering place), the political impulse of The Carpathians is actually more powerfully directed towards the sort of politics championed by Sjöholm. It takes place ‘beneath’ the plot. In Frame, we witness a ‘miniaturization’ or ‘singularization’ of politics, as when Mattina finds that her own body is abjectly ripe with language:


She noticed a small cluster like a healed sore on the back of her left hand. She picked at it. The scab crumbled between her fingers and fell on the table into a heap the size of a twenty-cent coin. Examining it, she discovered it to be a pile of minute letters of the alphabet, some forming minute words, some as punctuation marks; and not all were English letters—there were Arabic, Russian, Chinese and Greek symbols. There must have been over a hundred in that small space, each smaller than a speck of dust yet strangely visible as if mountain-high, in many colours and no colours, sparkling, without fire (Frame 129).

11In this passage, the body is under no obligation to ‘lift itself up’ to the level of politics conceived in social or large-scale terms. Rather, politics as a community formation of language and nationalities has taken up residence within the body, or more precisely at its abject border, in the form of that which both is and is not of the body: an everyday sore or scab. Abjection operates here as a ‘cultural primer’ to the extent that it pulverizes established notions of, most evidently, the politics of language (English and Maori) in postcolonial New Zealand. Later in the same paragraph from The Carpathians quoted from just now, Frame writes that “The people of Kowhai Street had experienced the disaster of unbeing, unknowing. . . . They were alive, yet on the other side of the barrier of knowing and being” (Frame 129). In this passage, we encounter the challenge promoted equally by Frame’s and (via Sjöholm) Kristeva’s unconventional politics of identity dissolution and reconstitution on a plane of singularity. Sjöholm’s analysis of Kristeva provides a framework for interpreting Frame’s fiction from a perspective that does justice to her particular literary concerns, while The Carpathians offers up an engaging example of the until-now hidden potential carried within Kristeva’s conceptualisation of politics, as drawn out by Sjöholm.