This exhilarating anthology of short stories challenges us to look beyond the shiny façade of ‘the new’ and to embrace ‘the abject’ – the ambiguous, the old, the distressing parts of ourselves and our society – and to ask what place the abject should have in our culture today.
The New Abject: Tales of Modern Unease is a welcome splice into the politics and headlines that have saturated the British press since the rise of New Labour, and the centrist ‘Third Way’ philosophy of Tony Blair (if not before). In a political climate which focuses always on ‘progress’ and the new, acceptance of the ambiguous, the old, the distressing parts of ourselves and our society — what we could call ‘the abject’ — has become rarer. In this anthology, however, topics such as immigration, illness, poverty, drug abuse, physical disfiguration, and political revolution run throughout, calling forth Julia Kristeva’s seminal text Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (1980) as well as Georges Bataille’s equally influential Abjection and Miserable Forms (1934). In Powers of Horror Kristeva states that “abjection is above all ambiguity”, whilst Bataille argues, in social theorist Imogen Tyler’s words, that “abjection is the imperative force of sovereignty, a founding exclusion which constitutes a part of the population as moral outcasts: ‘represented from the outside with disgust as the dregs of the people, populace and gutter’”. And in that vein, Sarah Eyre and Ra Page’s edited collection of short stories serves to reveal just how thin the line is between the Subject and the Abject — because, as Kristeva adds, “while releasing a hold, it [the abject] does not radically cut off the subject from what threatens it — on the contrary, abjection acknowledges it to be in perpetual danger”.
The New Abject turns to the traumas and fears that (used to) sit at the almost-edge of our collective vision, and have been exacerbated by a global pandemic. Through the reflections of authors, artists, and psychotherapists, including The Guardian’s ‘Not The Booker Prize’ winner Lara Williams, Turner Prize nominee Mike Nelson, and Polari Prize winner Saleem Haddad, The New Abject explores the isolated realities of those living with/as ‘abject’ bodies, thoughts, and desires. In short, The New Abject makes our skin crawl because its stories puncture the dermis between our ‘clean’ (cut) and ‘ordered’, personal, mental and physical worlds, and, as Page writes, the “things and people that society expels”.
One of the most exhilarating stories is An Enfleshment of Desire by Saleem Haddad, which brings forth flashes of news footage, mobile phone clips, and fire scorched images of the Middle East that I remember watching, each morning, as a teenager, on breakfast news. The story itself centres about the 2019 October Revolution in Lebanon, in which swathes of protestor massed across the country, initially provoked by proposed taxes on gasoline, tobacco, and internet calling services, to call to account a corrupt “government of sectarian warlords turned business tycoons”, as Haddad sardonically writes.
In the story, Haddad explores the erotic energy amassed amidst crowds of anti-government protestors, capturing a sort of sexual craving for rebellion and transgression, for political and intellectual rebellion and transgression, that his protagonist feels on the streets when they return to Beirut from New York to visit their parents. On a meta-level the story recalls Roland Barthes’ The Pleasure of The Text (1973); when I read An Enfleshment of Desire I wanted to eat the words, I was roused. It is a carnal text, in the sort of way that (a)rouses one out of political passivity yet warns of the violence with which desire, when quenched, can be met. Indeed, An Enfleshment of Desire feels dangerous — it has an energy that Barthes noted in Bataille: “texts…written against neurosis… contain within themselves, if they want to be read, that bit of neurosis necessary to the seduction of their readers…the fearful apprehension of an ultimate impossible”. They have that power of attraction — they compel to be read — but, as Haddad writes “desire must by its very nature remain illusive”. This abject keeps us on the precipice.
In contrast, The New Abject also includes much icier reading experiences, which reveal their discontinuities and time ruptures in a style akin to Rebecca (1938) by Daphne du Maurier, or Vertigo (1958) by Alfred Hitchcock. This feeling of cool unease is skilfully placed throughout the anthology by editors Eyre and Page, whose curation allows memory ruptures to occur between stories in the mind of the reader. Flashes of one cottage superimpose another, surely the same meal could not appear twice, in two stories written unrelated, apart, during a global lockdown…
Furthermore, reading as a living, bleeding, hairy, growing body, Lara Williams’ ( ) ( ( affects a different sort of time rupture. In the story, a woman living with severe bouts of endometriosis begins to pluck and scrape away at in-grown hairs, catching just under her skin and forming small bumps across her body, which appear after laparoscopic surgery. At first, like most of us, she gains pleasure from removing the stray, ingrown hairs, but soon they require at home ‘operations’ to be removed, a needle and fish filleting knife to hand.
As a reader the sensation of sliced skin is quick to return, crossing the boundary between our mental and bodily space, and the imaginary, stinging space of the text. The abject is just far enough away not to pierce our own skin, but Williams’ story reminds us once again of Kristeva’s definition: “because, while releasing a hold, it [the word made flesh] does not radically cut off the subject [the text] from what threatens it — on the contrary, abjection acknowledges it to be in perpetual danger”. In other words, the felt, performed, enacted word is at the surface of almost all of the short stories in The New Abject: they remind us that the rhetoric of horror is quick to manifest itself as the actions of horror. These stories threaten to puncture the real.
As such, one might question whether the ‘new’ in The New Abject is quite the right term. If anything, the past eighteen months have shown us that history does have an uncanny aptitude for repeating itself: that the ill, immigrant, poor, radical, physically different are still persecuted, excluded, and sidelined from our vision of a normal functioning society, particularly in times of crisis. Yet perhaps that is just it, that the ‘new’ or the ‘neo’ connotes our contemporary epoch: always moving forwards, ‘away’ from trauma — necessitating a radical, politically motivated return of what we have repressed.
Within this collection there are valuable catalysts for resistance.
The New Abject: Tales of Modern Unease, edited by Ra Page and Sarah Eyre, is published by Comma Press and is available to order online.
Feature image: detail from cover image of The New Abject, courtesy of Comma Press.