‘Now if you take the ugly,’ he continued, ‘or the deformed, or the old, and transcend your natural revulsion by uniting with it aesthetically – sometimes even physically – a rare ecstasy results which generates great magical potential.’
– John Scott, ‘Preface’
In our editorial call for submissions we set the parameters for a discourse of ‘filth’ based in the creative work of Australian poet and novelist John Scott and the psychoanalytic theoretical frame of Julia Kristeva’s work on the aesthetics of abjection, as set out in Powers of Horror. Following Scott’s alchemical imperative, we cast ‘filth’ as the creative product of aesthetic union with the abject, often repudiated by the cultural mainstream. Thus we embarked on a journey down crooked alleyways to places of alterity, where we found our editorial electronic mailbox clogged with more detritus than an urban sewage viaduct, bursting and bubbling up through the foramina magna at the bases of our skulls to pickle our brains in abject ‘filth’. By panning alluvially amongst the faecal dross of pornographic spam that sprayed at us each time we logged in, we managed to a sift a little gold from it all—the papers and artwork we selected from the scree—as well as lumps of crystalline feldspar, two sets of false teeth, a whalebone corset, and a small battery-operated device with a studded rubber collar. Filth, it seems, continues to be confronting and contentious as is evidenced by our articles; as well the sheer volume of filth we received and the ensuing debates around what should make the final cut.
In our feature article Donna Lee Brien bravely and eruditely reassesses An American Psycho fifteen years after its original publication. Bret Eastern Ellis endured years of vilification and threats due to this novel. Dr Brien reminds us that it is precisely that which we most stridently attempt to repudiate is that which most clearly mirrors the parts of ourselves and our society that we wish to ignore. As Julia Kristeva famously declared, ‘the abject, and abjection are my safeguards. The primers of my culture.’ (Kristeva 4) By declaring American Psycho depraved filth borne out of a depraved mind, mainstream society was able to ignore the urgent warnings for western culture implicit in the text. Fifteen years after its publication it remains relevant, and a terrible prophecy of the situation we find ourselves. A society that laments murder and violence but consistently fails to recognise its complicity. A society which continues to champion individualism but refuses to take responsibility for the consequences of such a manifesto. Filth—in all its incarnations—reminds us of our humanity, in all its messy, frightening, stinking glory.
Our work is further anchored and framed in a carnal discourse of ‘filth’ by this issue’s cover image—Julie Firth’s ‘Always Already (Not) There’, from the corpus of her recent video installation exhibition Stain. Julie’s accompanying paper ‘Ineradicable Stain’ elucidates the theoretical background to this artwork, and the nature of its process of creation—one of carnal union with the abject, involving transcendence of revulsion in a process sacred to the artist, but likely to be considered blasphemous in the context of her religious and cultural frame. Firth tells us that ‘Stain is about forgiveness’. She cites the work as ‘a protest against any beliefs that position individual, cultures, religions into polarised extremes of hatred’ and as ‘an appeal for reintegration, self-acceptance, and a plea to bear the unbearable’.
Well known cult writer and academic Jack Sargeant explores the increasing prevalence of anal sex in heterosexual pornography, and its various scatological implications in his article ‘Filth and Sexual Excess: Some Brief Reflections on Popular Scatology’. Sargeant reminds us that ‘shit is the part of us that both defies and defines humanity’, and the combining of shit and sex symbolises one of the final taboos in human relationships. This is an especially confronting article, but it lucidly and poignantly unpacks our revulsion and our fascination with bodily waste; and the carnal union represented in scatology.
Vivienne Muller’s paper discusses the aesthetic displays of plastinated human cadavers, in The Amazing Human Body exhibition currently touring Australia and in the art of showman anatomist Gunther von Hagens, in the context of Kristeva’s illustration of the abject, that which ‘disturbs identity, system, order’ (4), in corporeal terms. The display of the sculpted human corpse—in both it’s external and internal organicity—as objet d’art constitutes a abject breach of boundaries and conventions that shows us something of what Kristeva has described as ‘what I permanently thrust aside in order to live’. Although she does not address John Scott’s work directly, Muller’s discourse of the mortician’s art raises to mind Scott’s narrative ‘Elegy’ in which his loathsome Pogliani sneers, referring to the dead poet’s sister:
“You’ll find her in the galleries. She has requested les embaumers.” He breathed forcefully through the nose. “It is ridiculous, when there’s so little left to be preserved! At least the stench will make her easier to find.” (Translation 60)
Patrick West offers us a careful and concise critical piece, based in his knowledge of the literary discourse generated by Kristeva’s work, and applied to Janet Frame’s The Carpathians. West argues the case that ‘Abjection is the … 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.’ In the context of Frame’s work, he politicises corporeal abjection and declares to us that the ‘body is abjectly ripe with language.’
By comparing urinary and faecal incontinence with the concept of a nation’s ‘leaky borders’, Farida Tilbury also invokes a discourse of corporeal abjection, of the loss of control of the boundary between what is inside and what is outside, the me and the not-me. Within our discourse of ‘filth’, her work advances from the ground that Patrick West has taken with respect to the political implications of bodily metaphors and that of Vivienne Muller’s paper on breaches of physical boundaries and conventions.
The infamous Bondi ‘rubbish house’ has been presented by tabloid television time and again as an assault on the aspirations of home-owners in John Howard’s Australia. In her article ‘Location, Location: Situating Bondi’s “Rubbish House”’, Kirsten Seale uses the media coverage of the Bondi home, and it’s owner, as a metaphor for Australian mainstream society’s distaste for ‘matter out of place’ and it’s transgressive qualities in the capitalist social space.
The impact on young people of violent video games has, and continues to be, an important aspect in the argument for censorship. Scott Beattie in ‘Extremity, Video Games and the Censors’ takes up the argument that ‘the trend toward censorship of games in Australia would seem to bear the hallmarks of a moral panic’. Beattie proposes that more critical academic engagement in the booming video game industry is necessary to change the prevalent disparaging attitude toward gaming and gamers. As does Kirsten Seale’s article, Beattie’s explores the sociological and political dimensions of labelling ‘filth’.
Imogen Tyler guides us through the filthy territory of class politics in her article ‘Chav Scum: The Filthy Politics of Social Class in Contemporary Britain.’ The trope of the chav has become a highly emotive symbol and reviled figure in contemporary Britain. Imogen Tyler unpacks the role of the chav in British society using theories of the despised Other.
In ‘Matter Out of Place: Reading Dirty Women’ Carol Wical reads the role of dirt and women in the film Alien to illuminate the disruptive role of mess – particularly when the mess is attached to women. When women are represented as literally dirty in film it is often to signal their status as unfeminine; in direct contrast to the role of dirt as a signifier of courage and effort on male characters.
To conclude the issue, Jason Bainbridge sticks a fork into the turf of suburbia and turns it over to reveal its underbelly, teeming with ‘filth’. He applies the critical writings of John Hartley and Mary Douglas to the cinematic work of David Lynch and Todd Solondz on the soiling of suburban life. He describes the way in which Lynch’s character in Blue Velvet, college student Jeffrey Beaumont, is traumatised by his voyeuristic adventures. John Scott’s Carl, from ‘Preface’, who follows the magician’s advice given in our introductory epigraph, also is corrupted and comes to a bad end. We editors, now baptised in the cesspool of our filthy investigations, turn to our suburban lives, fearful lest you buttonhole us sternly in the street, like Sandy in Blue Velvet saying: ‘I don’t know if you’re a detective or a pervert!”