Duality - Approaching Abjection II

The Arts Film Religion


[read part 1 here]


In Mediterranean culture and the Arab world, the question is far more complex because different substrata of the pagan cultures that precede monotheism – unlike in Europe – survive almost intact in different cultural and social forms, not limited to the vague memory of Greek culture. Khaled El-Rouayheb’s book Before Homosexuality in the Arab-Islamic World, 1500-1800 is very illuminating in this respect: Through the study of poetry, biographies, medical treatises, interpretation of dreams and Islamic texts, he arrives at the conclusion that Islamic culture of the Golden Age lacked the concept of homosexuality.


The conclusion of El-Rouayheb’s book is very telling: Homosexuality as a concept and the infamous sodomy laws in Arab states, are largely derived from colonial legislation brought in by the British and the French, and only much later incorporated into the body of Islamic legislation. Also, in the Jewish world, 14th century philosopher Kalonymus ben Kalonymus, presents in his book Even Bochan, a narrative that by today’s standards would be considered transgender, or at least, the feeling of being trapped in the wrong body.


Mosaad tells us in the interview: “What does a man with faith in his heart do with his sexual inclination? Where do one end and the other begin? This gap between the super-ego and the identity. And how do two extreme opposites meet in one psyche at the same exact moment? It’s quite a limbo actually, especially for a young person who is still coming out, still molding his identity; only armed with a halo of confusion and an inescapable inner shame.”


The annihilation of the self that Mosaad is set to explore, can be identified – for the sake of an analytical view, rather than the impossible interpretation of the work – with the concept of “abjection” proposed by Julia Kristeva. What is abjection? A state of degradation, baseness and rejection. The abject for Kristeva is the complement of the superego: The abject is an object already lost, and the experience of abjection is the mourning of that object; standing outside the symbolic orders of culture.1


How do we experience abjection? Either by purification (religious ecstasy) or defilement (sexual ecstasy) the body is reunited with the lost objects and annihilates the subject, if only temporarily: “Abjection is a resurrection that has gone through death (of the ego). It is an alchemy that transforms death drive into a start of life, of new significance.”2 Being abject is precisely the state of being exactly opposite to the ego or to myself.3


The abject is an object that has been not only lost but also repressed and through both ecstasy and defilement the object and the subject become whole again.4 This relationship is determined by a marker, by a cultural marker, out of which the ego is born, but is a world that frightens and intimidates because it poses the instability of the ego: “What is so terrifying about it is that it is so terribly clear and such gladness. If it went on for more than five seconds, the soul could not endure it and must perish. In those five seconds I live through a lifetime, and I am ready to give my life for them, for it’s worth it. To be able to endure it for ten seconds, you would have to undergo a physical change."5


In other words: “The vision of the abject is, by definition, the sign of an impossible object, a boundary and a limit."6 What is it that happens in “Duality” that is so paralyzing and frightening? Why is annihilation so present and real a possibility? Perhaps because both experiences are so qualitatively similar that  survival as a self is impossible in the visual and mental presence of both, at least in a world dominated by repression as the most powerful impetus of the ethical: Civilization requires the suppression of animality.


While the animality of sexual intercourse is also present in religious ecstasy, its character is merely symbolic and performative. The effect of the water in “Duality” – since the religious ecstasy, shame and guilt, all take next to the Sea, but yet not in it – has the cleansing quality of restoring the subject and the ego by placing a limit and a boundary across; precisely what the bodily defilement shattered.


But the clear distinction between ecstasy and defilement is no longer possible in our contemporary scenario, where the sensorially empty absolute present of Modernity no longer recognizes the boundary between the primal and the conscious and conceives of history as one monotonous extension of the whole. Both ecstasy and defilement can be experienced as lifestyles, to be visited at will.


Returning to New York, a fascinating discussion between different commentators took place on the New York Times in July 2012 over the question, Are Modern Men Manly Enough? Question begot in an age in which the traditional roles and attitudes between men and women have been slowly eroded. One of the commentators, Lawrence Schlossman, responded with a piece titled Manly is a Lifestyle, Not a Look. Without realizing, Schlossman revealed more than he thinks about the fluidity of genders and sexuality nowadays.


Susan Sontag insists that the taste for sadomasochism and rituals of domination and enslavement in affluent societies is simply a logical extension of the tendency to turn every part of people’s lives into a taste, a choice and a lifestyle. Once masculinity, religion and sex become tastes, they are severed from personhood, relationships and love, and ultimately, become a self-conscious form of theater.7 It is in this sense that: “Everyone has felt (at least in fantasy) the erotic glamour of physical cruelty and an erotic lure in things that are vile and repulsive."8


Both ecstasy and defilement require an obsession, that is, abjection from oneself: “Insofar as strong sexual feeling does involve an obsessive degree of attention, it encompasses experiences in which a person can feel he is losing his self."9 Sexuality in this sense, in its lifestyle commodity form – like pornography or science fiction – is the attempt, the impossible attempt, to enter a total universe that was once filled with religious content. This is what is so terrifying in “Duality”: Both images, the defilement and the ecstasy, are one and the same.





Follow Arie on Twitter @Dilmunite


[1] Julia Kristeva. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (Irvington, NY: Columbia University Press, 1982): 15. 



[2] Julia Kristeva. 1982: 15.



[3] Julia Kristeva. 1982: 1.



[4] Julia Kristeva. 1982: 10.



[5] Julia Kristeva. 1982: 19.



[6] Julia Kristeva. 1982: 147.



[7] Susan Sontag. “Fascinating Fascism,” in Under the Sign of Saturn (New York: Picador, 1972):104-105.



[8] Susan Sontag. “The Pornographic Imagination,” in Styles of Radical Will (New York: Picador, 1966): 57.



[9] Susan Sontag. 1966: 58.  




Egypt, Homosexuality, Susan Sontag, Dalia Mosaad, Julia Kristeva