On Reading Semanalytically: The Kristevan/Cronenbergian Abject

Posted in 2010 Journal


As coined by French feminist and psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva, ‘semanalysis’ represents the critical and political fusing of Saussurean/Barthesean semiotics and Freudian/Lacanian psychoanalysis. The portmanteau resulting aptly captures the spirit of Kristeva’s inter- and transdisciplinarity, and in this essay I provide a reading of three of Cronenberg’s early films that makes critical use of Kristeva’s dual concepts of semanalysis and abjection; they are Rabid (1977), The Brood (1979), and Videodrome (1983). My interpretations suggest not only that Cronenberg figures prominently in the American body-horror imagination, but also that Kristeva can and should figure prominently in cinema studies, critical/cultural scholarship, and work with literature and literary theory and criticism in the humanities.

Representation is that by which we make our will known and, simultaneously, that which alienates our will from ourselves.

~ W. J. T. Mitchell (1995, p. 21)


French feminist psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva, whose work has been enjoying a renewed interest in the academic community, developed in the 1980s her theories of abjection and semanalysis. The former, which she introduces in Powers of Horror (1982), concerns the necessarily dualistic nature of pleasure and pain, or, as Kristeva puts it, as feeling both “sublime and devastated” (p. 2). The l

atter, semanalysis, was developed as a fusion of and a dissociation from both psychoanalysis and semiotics, reflected in Kristeva’s poststructuralist feminist theoretical grounding, which editor Toril Moi of The Kristeva Reader (1986) observes has a “curiously distant relationship to current feminist debates and to feminism in general” (p. 9). Indeed, Kristeva saw much of the then-popular manifestations of feminism as just as dominating and master-narrative-driven as male domination. Nevertheless, her feminist re-workings of the ontological merit wider critical application; in fact, one filmic lineage for which Kristeva’s work seems ideal is that of David Cronenberg, whose recent A History of Violence (2005) and Eastern Promises (2007) have provided him dramatic range that was perhaps lacking in his earlier films. Yet it is precisely in those earlier films where Kristeva’s theories of embodiment come to life.

Thus far, the filmic track created by Cronenberg has yielded a fair amount of insightful scholarship on such topics as technology, the body, rage, horror, femininity, male hysteria, and societal decay (Handling, 1983; Creed, 1993; Cronenberg, 1997; Grant, 2000; Beard, 2006; Browning, 2007; Mathijs, 2008). Although some scholars of Cronenberg, particularly Creed (1993) and Beard (2006), have located important (con)textual relationships between Cronenberg and Kristeva, the connection has not been presented as deeply as an abject, semanalytic reading might provide. As coined by Kristeva, ‘semanalysis’ represents the critical and political fusing of Saussurean/Barthesean semiotics and Freudian/Lacanian psychoanalysis. The portmanteau resulting aptly captures the spirit of Kristeva’s inter- and transdisciplinarity, and I hope in this essay to provide a reading of three of Cronenberg’s early films that makes critical use of Kristeva’s dual concepts of semanalysis and abjection; they are Rabid (1977), The Brood (1979), and Videodrome (1983). My interpretations suggest not only that Cronenberg figures prominently in the American body-horror imagination, but also that Kristeva can and should figure prominently in cinema studies, critical/cultural scholarship, and work with literature and literary theory and criticism in the humanities.

Beard (2006) provides a cogent reading of many of Cronenberg’s films, making particularly bountiful interpretations using Kristeva’s literary-filmic framework. As he writes, with Kristeva “body boundaries . . . contain and repress the abject, and indeed the ‘clean and proper body’ is the polar opposite of the abject body in Kristeva’s thinking” (p. 29). This is a keen way of understanding Kristeva’s abjection; it suggests the dialectical relationship inherent in the abject between lusting and loathing, between titillation and putrefaction, between the orgasmic and the deathly. The issue necessarily involves the body; that is, abjection cannot be disembodied, for it is always already tied to its subject, always contingent on corporeality. In Beard’s conceptualization, Kristeva and the abject are palpable sites of bodily functions and processes, especially in Cronenberg’s work. “The nexus of sex, disease, and death in Cronenberg is quite in keeping with Kristeva’s typology” (p. 31).

It must be stressed at the outset that the Kristevan mode of semiotically reading texts is markedly distinct in comparison to contemporaries such as Barthes, Eco, Derrida, and Sontag, dependent mostly on her refusal to accept the inherent limitations of a ‘purely’ semiotic reading as a mere linguistic artifact. Her preoccupation with Freudian psychoanalysis and all its constituents, and with the postmodern feministic worldview, leads her to a devolution and rebirth of structuralism proper, substituting for it a conflation of critical theory she calls semanalysis. Elizabeth Grosz (1989) captures the essence of Kristevan semiotics nicely: “Kristeva uses the term ‘the semiotic’ idiosyncratically. . . . In her usage it designates the contributions of sexual drives to signification. It must be opposed to the symbolic, understood in Lacan’s sense as the law-abiding operations of socio-linguistic systems” (p. 42). In the filmic text, a semanalytical interpretation, by definition, yields polysemic excess: a reading that is at once more socially (externally) inclined than ‘pure’ semiotics, and more linguistically (internally) inclined than ‘pure’ psychoanalysis. The net result, in Kristevan (1982) terminology, is “the limit of primal repression” (p. 11), simultaneously concerned with the signs that inhabit our systems of literary and filmic representation and with “an intrinsically corporeal and already signifying brand, symptom, and sign: repugnance, disgust, abjection” (p. 11). Further, the abject, as she describes it, is neither object (thing), nor subject (speaker/writer), but rather it “confronts us . . . with those fragile states where man strays on the territory of animal” (p. 12), pre-figuring Donna Haraway’s later work on the cyborg and the posthuman condition. Thus, an auteur such as Cronenberg — whose preoccupation with the humanly grotesque eerily mirrors Kristeva’s own fascination with bodily functions — fashions his filmic texts relative both to systems of language and to unconscious maternal yearnings. Since the abject is that which, as Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton (1990) puts it in The Ideology of the Aesthetic, tackles “that originary experience of nausea, horror, and distaste involved in our first efforts to separate out from the pre-oedipal mother,” (p. 177), let us consider the seminal pre-Fly films of Cronenberg’s oeuvre: Rabid (1977), The Brood (1979), and Videodrome (1983).

After a horrific accident renders her incapacitated, Rose (Marilyn Chambers) in Rabid (1977) undergoes an experimental skin-grafting surgery which abjectively empowers her with the equivalent of a deadly phallic mutation: protruding from her feminine skin are metallic, needle-like spikes that tear through the flesh of her victims, thereby syntagmatically spreading (displacing) the rabid disease throughout the populace. Its narrative absurdity notwithstanding, Rabid re-presents what Kristeva calls “the deject” (p. 8, emphasis original), in this case a woman who “never stops demarcating h[er] universe whose fluid confines — for they are constituted of a non-object, the abject — constantly question h[er] solidity and impel h[er] to start afresh. A tireless builder, the deject is in short a stray” (p. 8, emphasis original). This is Creed’s (1993) conception of the “monstrous feminine.” Yet, far from the überabjective experience on display in Roman Polanski’s similarly themed Repulsion (1965), Cronenberg’s heroine Rose seems instead to revel in her maniacal grotesqueness, to delight in the jouissance of abjection — “violently and painfully” (Kristeva, 1982, p. 9). Moreover, as the city grapples with the chaos of the epidemic, Rose remains oblivious to her own role in the destruction of a community. Abjectively, she is unable until the very end to understand her own influence, even as she hugs victim after victim, only to proceed with her patterned phallic intrusion. As Kristeva points out, “abjection, with a meaning broadened to take in subjective diachrony, is a precondition of narcissism” (p. 13): refusing to accept her status as a mere interpersonal chora (receptacle), she boldly subjugates her functional position as ‘the girlfriend,’ an attempt at equalizing the social terrain. Strangely enough, Dostoyevsky (1872) illustrates this seemingly adversarial concept of equality-through-despotism in The Possessed: “in a herd there is bound to be equality” (as cited in Kristeva, 1982, p. 20). Read as a psychoanalytic feministic allegory, then, Rabid dramatizes the repositioning of social power between the genders on a communal scale: all those infected are equally abjective as any other. Put otherwise, the zombie does not discriminate.

But the allegorical reading of this film as afforded by psychoanalysis alone is insufficient according to Kristevan methodology, for, as Eagleton (1996) muses in Literary Theory: An Introduction, “like Freud, [structuralism] exposes the shocking truth that even our most intimate experience is the effect of a structure” (p. 94). Certainly present in the film is a sort of structuralist grammar: the subject (Rose) infects the objects (the Others) through the abject (the malady), but more importantly, the abjection itself can be viewed as the grammar’s true signified. Understanding the signifier as the text itself (Kristeva, 1982, p. 5), we can see how Rose’s abjection (made known by the film’s images, sounds, mise en scène, and so forth) comes to paradigmatically (metaphorically, genotextually) replace our linguistic conception of disease, epidemic, death: “It is death that most violently represents the strange state in which a non-subject, a stray, having lost its non-objects, imagines nothingness through the ordeal of abjection” (Kristeva, 1982, p. 25). This sense of performativity is promulgated throughout Rabid, especially in the closing scene: having essentially eradicated sexism via the phallic nature of her condition, she is thrown into the back of a garbage truck to be squeezed and ground into the detritus of the selfsame societal waste she has put there. While the film (wisely) ends there, one can presume that, quite ironically, Rose’s death signifies a return to a referent of order: the community at large eventually resumes normalcy, containing the affliction through what Kristeva (1986) would term Rose’s semiotic disposition. This requires “identifying the shift in the speaking subject, h[er] capacity for renewing the order in which [s]he is inescapably caught up” (p. 29). Upon her death, Rose — first an icon, representing femininity, and second an index, representing that which brought about the demise of communal phallocentrism — is at last a true symbol, signifying a period of feminine rebirth.

Like Rose in Rabid, Nola (Samantha Eggar) in The Brood (1979) is also representative of the feminine abject, although the extent to which Cronenberg pushes this metaphor is here more extreme. Just as implausible, The Brood centers on a couple and their daughter Candice (Cindy Hinds) as they meander through the psychological effects of a divorce. A distraught Nola is introduced to the audience as a patient at the Somafree Institute of Psychoplasmatics, another mimetically Cronenbergian instance of psychoanalysis gone awry (the film’s original title was The Clinic of Terror). There, Dr. Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed), a superbly grotesque caricature of Freud himself, uses paradigmatic/metaphorical condensation to represent persons of anxious import to his patient. For Nola, these are her mother, her father, and her husband Frank (Art Hindle). Behind the guise of a loved one, Dr. Raglan enables Nora to verbalize her unconscious desires and fears, mostly centering on abuse, neglect, and adultery. Preluding an interview with Cronenberg in Chaw (2003), it is remarked that “in The Brood, the physiological changes are children of hatred and anxiety and the resultant progeny is sterile and malevolent. The picture is, in other words, a definitive metaphor for the coldness and cruelty of acrimonious divorce” (n.p.). Thus, when childlike, demonic syntagms begin killing off characters, the film moves into the realm of the psychoanalytical abject: Nola screams to Frank as she demonstrates her queen-bee capabilities, “I repulse you, don’t I!” Indeed sickened by the womblike appendage that Nola caresses (essentially constituting a female Eraserhead [Lynch, 1977]), Frank cannot contain his repugnance; consequently, ‘the brood’ of syntagmatic child-demons turns on Dr. Haglan, scratching and kicking and biting him until he finally succumbs under the Lose Weight Exercise of the feminine abject and dies. In a similarly adversarial fashion as that of Rabid, Nola’s death arrives at the very moment of purification, which is also the moment of utter putrefaction. As Kristeva describes it:

The abject shatters the wall of repression and its judgments. It takes the ego back to its source on the abominable limits from which, in order to be, the ego has broken away — it assigns it a source in the non-ego, drive, and death. 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. (p. 15)

Concordantly, Candice is given a cathartic re-emergence: she is no longer traumatized by the brood, the eerie pseudo-sibling manifestations of her mother’s own unconscious psychoses, but is instead reclaimed by her father’s loving arms.

Again, Kristeva would find this essentially psychoanalytical reading heretofore unsatisfying: “Facing the ab-ject . . . one might ask if . . . articulations of negativity germane to the unconscious . . . have not become inoperative” (1982, p. 7). Thus, the inclusion of a structural analysis must be put forward: viewed as a signifier of the psychological and physiological pejoration incumbent on the familial dissolution brought about by divorce, The Brood dramatizes the corollaries of interpersonal disintegration. Focusing on her own internal imbalances (fittingly caused by her own childhood experience with divorce and the dissolution of the nuclear family), Nola abandons her family in pursuit of her ‘brood.’ It is worth pointing out that ‘brood,’ being a synonym of ‘litter,’ is etymologically derived from the Old English ‘brōd’ via Indo-European origins, which indicated ‘heat’ or being ‘in heat’ (Dictionary.com, 2010, n.p.). Indeed, the bevy of repercussion consequent to matrimonial consummation seems immaterial to Nola: she doesn’t seem to truly care for Candice and her well-being, just for her own syntagmatically demonic manifestations of trauma. The climactic scene in which the brood attack Candice through a wooden door is indicative of the metonymy of siblinghood: unable to detach herself from her mother’s past and, by extension, from her own deformed brothers and sisters, Candice does what anyone else might do when confronted with inescapable and undeniable referents who are hell-bent on destroying her purely paradigmatic substitution for the mother: she screams. Frank, meanwhile, strangles his own wife for the protection of his daughter, and the brood semiotically disappear: they are no longer the signified abjective. Upon death, Nola — first an icon, representing motherhood, and second an index, representing that which brought about the demise of paternal superiority and familial traditionalism — is at last a true symbol, signifying a period of daughterly rebirth.

Perhaps the apotheosis of Cronenbergian body horror, Videodrome (1983) is in some ways distinct in comparison to Rabid and The Brood. Indeed, its more public concern of the maladaptive effect of modern media’s does shift the film away from a semanalytical reading in some aspects (and toward a Marxist or ideological one), yet it retains its abjective tinge. Max Renn (James Woods), a late-night soft-core pornographic television station producer/programmer, in seeking out ever-new material to broadcast, encounters the sadomasochistic: ‘Videodrome.’ After meeting friend Nicki Brand (Deborah Harry), the pair’s fornication comes metaphorically to take on an aura of the hard-core, the smutty, the violent — all that ‘Videodrome’ presents literally. In fact, the transmogrification Max soon undergoes serves to make Cronenberg’s metaphor literal as well: he becomes an androidic VHS tape-player — an embodied, fleshy VCR complete with a vaginal stomach-slit and a gun fused to his hand. Kristeva (1982) notes the double sense of jouissance/disgust with which Max, the “fascinated victim,” fights: “The subject is swallowed up but . . . the Other, in return, keeps the subject from foundering by making it repugnant” (p. 9, capitalization original). As such, Max — through a series of progressively expansive and hallucinogenic experiences with ‘Videodrome,’ and by extension, with television and other modern media — comes to follow the trajectory through which his mind shifts from the abject a priori to the abject a posteriori: once a mere (re)presenter of a mimetically pornographic subculture, he now fully inhabits his own sadomasochistic fascination with the grotesque:

Discomfort, unease, dizziness stemming from an ambiguity that, through the violence of a revolt against, demarcates a space out of which signs and objects arise. Thus braided, woven, ambivalent, a heterogeneous flux marks out a territory that [he] can call [his] own because the Other, having dwelt in [him] as alter ego, points it out to [him] through loathing. (Kristeva, 1982, p. 10, emphases and capitalization original).

Fully ensconced in his own unconscious mythology, Max must thus bear the implications. First, the vaginal slit integrates into his very being: as one of the film’s taglines goes, “First it controlled h[is] mind, then it destroyed h[is] body . . . Long live the new flesh!” (IMDb.com). Next, the gun integrates into his very being: per another tagline, “a terrifying new weapon” (IMDb.com). Finally, the media (television, film, art, representation) integrate into his very being: yet another tagline reads “a vision of enormous physical impact” (IMDb.com). Hence, that which was once simply represented is now embodied, quite literally.

Moving from the Freudian to the Saussurean fleshes out Videodrome as it did Rabid and The Brood. Although French semiotician Roland Barthes (1966) states in his “Structural Analysis of Narratives” that “the psychological person (of referential order) bears no relation to the linguistic person, the latter never defined by states of mind, intention or traits of character but only by its (coded) place in discourse” (p. 285), Kristeva argues for the fusion of the psychological and the linguistic, however incompatible or contradictory they may be (despite Lacan’s understanding of subjectivity-through-linguistic-structure). In Videodrome, the paradigmatic and syntagmatic axes of representation speak to the film’s seeming obsession with the relationships between and among body and technology, sex and death, medium and message. The television that Max so fervently worships at the beginning of the film is essentially a paradigm for the role of media in a Capitalist, modern technotopia: as the aptly named television mogul Brian O’Blivion (e.g., oblivion of the brain) comments in the film, the stupor induced by ‘Videodrome’ is a replacement for the once-competent and in-control mind of the viewer and his/her own realities. O’Blivion opines in Videodrome:

The battle for the mind of North America will be fought in the video arena — the videodrome. The television screen is the retina of the mind’s eye. Therefore the television screen is part of the physical structure of the brain. Therefore whatever appears on the television screen merges as raw experience for those who watch it. Therefore television is reality, and reality is less than television.

This McLuhanesque subversion of reality lends itself to Kristeva’s (1982) abject, in which one is “beside [one]self” (p. 1). The syntagm, s/he who is associated with the speaking subject, then, is Nicki Brand. Through the metonymical relationship between our protagonistic anti-hero and his fetishistic girlfriend, we see how the speaking subject is not alone in his abjection: they are both signifieds for the signifier which Kristeva (1982) terms “a vortex of summons and repulsion” (p. 1): they are both a part of the sign for which the referent is, as Cronenberg clearly intended, the real-life extradiegetic media-consuming audience, us. Toward the end of the film, as the scenes effectively blur the line between Max’s conscious and unconscious realities, Brand is strangled: we know not if she truly dies. Yet we could hesitantly remark that, presumably dead, Nicki, like Rose and Nola before her — first an icon, representing fetishism, and second an index, representing that which brought about the demise of the mediated consumer — is at last a true symbol, signifying a period of technosexual rebirth.

A Cronenbergian semanalysis is by definition bound to be fraught with contradictions, limitations, banalities, as is any textual application of critical theory. Eagleton (1996) notes, like Umberto Eco before him, that for semiotics

an ideal reader would need to be fully equipped with all the technical knowledge essential for deciphering the work, to be faultless in applying this knowledge, . . . [to be] free of any hampering restrictions, . . . to be stateless, classless, ungendered, free of ethnic characteristics and without limiting cultural assumptions. (p. 105)

Yet as he later states, “the way you apply a rule is not just a technical affair: it is bound up with wider interpretations of reality, with commitments and predilections which are not themselves reducible to conformity to a rule” (p. 109). Seemingly wanting it both ways, it is easy for us as critics to find faults in others’ work, yet that is not the point of scholarly criticism. Whether or not Eagleton’s second comment is mere justification for the troubling confines of a ‘purely’ structural analysis of texts, Kristeva’s mode of criticism reflects the ambiguities, boundaries, and inefficiencies of literary theory, and revels in it. The semanalytical reading is therefore no more or less acceptable, only different, always already deferring, shifting, sliding. Kristeva sees the purposive congregation of “post-Saussurean linguistics, psychoanalysis, philosophy, semiotics and deconstruction as the most powerful means of understanding the production of sexual difference in language, reading, and writing (Showalter, 1990, p. 185), and, of course, in abjecting.

The scholarly community should continue investigating how notions of power, pleasure, pain, and production are constituted in our daily lives, whether through the very personal, embodied acts of everyday life, or through our public imagination via media and technology. If this (sem)analysis has demonstrated that the work of a theorist such as Kristeva can illuminate texts in ways we might not have otherwise noticed, it stands to follow that similar research should be explored, especially when utilizing underrepresented or underappreciated ideas, works, and theorists. Whether we are discussing film, music, art, technology, or literature, our disciplinary boundaries — so cemented in tradition as they sometimes are — should be breached, intertwined, enfolded, overlain, and interpenetrable. Through hybridized epistemological and methodological approaches, our sense of being in the world, our ontological positionalities, our very ways of study, can and should be questioned, critiqued, and changed. In the flow of time, such political work will necessarily alter research, but it will alter researchers as well.




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