The ‘abject’ as described by philosopher and psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva stems from an encounter between the self and a repulsive, uncanny other: extraneous bodily fluids, a confrontation with the corruptibility of flesh, disagreeable sensations that invade one’s personal sphere. The abject seems to manifest itself mainly in the encounter with other animal bodies.
Conversely, contemporary life seemingly moves away from physical contact. Not a futuristic paranoia anymore, it is an agreed fact that millennials’ existence steadily drifts towards aseptic, digital, touch-less environments: away from the sight of our extinguished dears’ corpses, away from the image of disease as something filthy, away from crawling magnified germs.
How is it possible then that we still experience the abject today? Paul Kneale’s eBook, ‘New Abject’ investigates this feeling and successfully identifies the sites where it takes abode today. Indeed, Kristeva’s abject is an incredibly elusive concept: it obstinately squirms and refuses to be pinned down to an easy definition. “Not me. Not that. But not nothing, either. A “something” that I do not recognize as a thing. A weight of meaninglessness, about which there is nothing insignificant, and which crushes me. On the edge of nonexistence and hallucination, of a reality that, if I acknowledge it, annihilates me. There, abject and abjection are my safeguards. The primers of my culture.” (Julia Kristeva, ‘Powers of Horror: an Essay on Abjection)
Subtler than a body, Paul Kneale diagnoses the abject as the repulsion one experiences in the encounter with cultural products and services that have been changed ontologically by the advent of the digital era. The internet is regarded almost like a black hole, a virtually infinite space and time, growing exponentially with the number of mass consumers: an altogether new, incommensurable dimension. For instance, he imagines the – vaguely dystopic and yet hilarious – endeavour of grasping the sheer amount of viewings for Justin Bieber’s ‘Baby’ track on YouTube in terms of time duration. In order to listen to the song as many times as it has been viewed by millions of viewers, one should travel back in time 7000 years and still wouldn’t been done today.
Kneale’s sharp analysis has identified the abject in contemporary commodities – which is what we are mostly surrounded by and drowning in. What is not a commodity today?, one might ask. Justin Bieber’s songs and museum exhibitions are a commodity as much as Andy Warhol’s iconic Campbell Soup cans evoked by Kneale. Contemporary artists, Paul Kneale implies, are trapped into a Pop world, where everything is branded, where the consumer is lured into compulsively buying new and improved versions of the same products.
When one is exposed to a surplus of consumer goods, the surface occasionally breaks. To put it in Kristeva’s terms, the warm milk’s skin sticks to one’s lips and they feel the horror. In such instance, commodities take on the same insidious quality of the abject which “beseeches, worries, and fascinates desire, which, nevertheless, does not let itself be seduced. Apprehensive, desire turns aside; sickened, it rejects.” (Julia Kristeva, ‘Powers of Horror: an Essay on Abjection)
“When we encounter an instance that evokes the new abject – Paul Kneale writes – the ontic rupture can become a productive space”. Indeed, it is precisely from the artist’s realisation of the fundamental, ontological difference between analog and digital photography, that stems his ‘Post-post-post-production’ series of scanner-paintings.