Between abjection and ideals

We have argued that social unconsciousness is the continual production of discursive worlds and imaginary spaces. This production neither stops nor covers all, with inevitable unclosable dislocations, contradictions, and untheorised regions; in the words of Derrida (1981, p. 94) ". spacing is the impossibility for an identity to be closed on itself .". Although we cannot step outside it, we can look off-centre, as it were, to its margins and more obvious areas of incompleteness, in which its history and production can be glimpsed, towards those foggy social regions and occupants of the "foul lining of society" (Kristeva, 1982).

Kristeva's (1982) concept of abjection is useful, since if we look at what is ejected and jettisoned-off from the social body and "proper self", the meaning of that which is central to that social body and self are more easily discerned; the abject, in her definition, relates to "what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules" (p. 4). What is unconscious about social unconsciousness is in part that which is disavowed, repressed, isolated, rendered unthinkable. Dangerous forces and beings transgress and pollute order and yet their existence is itself a paradox, since what explains them? At one level they are a constituency of "impossible subjects" or marvels, which like monsters or the phenomenon of Evil are not quite meant to be, and at another, as we shall see in the discussion of witchcraft to follow, are all too "necessary" to assume, and much feared. Rather than absolutes, there are many faces of marginality and degrees of (in)visibility. In a German study of "defiled trades" and "dishonorable folk" (e.g., skinners, executioners, grave-diggers, barber-surgeons, bailiffs, etc.). Stuart (1999) investigates the existence of a visible, yet outcast subgroup, defined by occupation and family lineage, who were seen as source of social pollution, an underbelly to the respectable world of "honourable" professions and guilds and yet who were not subject to direct persecution. Such a world depended, amongst other conditions, upon categories of social pollution and hierarchical status, with distinctions between honourable and dishonourable. A similar point can be made with regard to many other "groups on the edge", not always entirely excluded, but sometimes tolerated as "lesser evils", "remnant religions", and so on, including Jews, beggars, and prostitutes; "In its medieval context, marginalisation is, paradoxically enough, a way of incorporating deviant groups in society, albeit in its outer spheres" (Bejczy, 1997, p. 375).

The abjected does not vanish, but as an absent presence serves as reminder and plays a demarcation function; as Butler (2000) puts it, the excluded, "return to haunt the politics predicated on their absence" (p. 11). As noted, in the Middle-Ages, "monsters" had many cultural and symbolic uses, demarcating spheres, bodies, and valued practices—such as Christians, humans, saints, rulers, maleness, obedience—from their denigrated counterparts—such as non Christians, demons, animals, rebels, subservient beings (Weegmann, 2008). Wittkower's (1942) intriguing essay notes how the sundry monsters and "marvels of the East" were in fact reformulations and revitalisations of monsters described by the ancients, only second time around acquiring Christian, theological justification, such as the idea that they could not be contra naturam but were created by God, who had his own purpose for doing so; indeed, as we shall see, even the activities of witches were seen as being given permsission by God to "disburb the elements" (Kramer & Sprengler, 1486, p. 10). As "intimate strangers", monsters lived close-by, within, or else inhabited presently unknown regions that humans may not yet have contact with, beyond the Pillars of Hercules and so on. In this way, monsters were an army of imaginary others, figures within a discourse of deformity (Williams, D., 1996). The relation between the two realms, the monstrous and the orderly, the abject and the normal, is not "accidental", in the sense that anyone could simply opt out of seeing the world as it was customarily defined; they have some kind of meaningful relationship to each other—"medieval demonology created an explanatory resource for exploring the distinctions between possible ideals and their flawed, human expressions" (Bildhauer & Mills, 2003, p. 14).

A complementary approach, starting from an opposite pole to abjection, is to consider social unconsciousness and the imaginary in terms of what a given society or group represents as being its ideal state. In other words, what regulative ideals "pull", and thus thematise, the social in a particular way? As Ricoeur (1984a) puts it, "... there exists the imaginaire of rupture, a discourse of 'utopia' which remains critical of the powers that be out of fidelity to an 'elsewhere', to a society that is not-yet" (p. 138). Hence, the present life is complemented by a Golden Era or After Life, the Devil by God, the witch by the Virgin, the stake by the pedestal—contraries particularly apparent in societies dominated by the ubiquity of hierarchy (Amussen, 1985). Frequently, a mythic past and mythic future promise to join up, as in the discourses of "millennial" movements; for example, radicals of the English Civil War anticipated the final lifting of the oppressive "Norman Yoke", a return to an "earlier" period or an "outside" of time (the image of the Garden of Eden, the "free Anglo-Saxons", the time of the primitive and uncorrupted church), and the elimination of the mythology of the Monarch's "divine right" by the counter-mythology of the coming of Christ's Kingdom (Hill, 1972). Regulative ideals may include "utopias", an idea made famous, if rendered enigmatic, by the Catholic critic and statesman, Thomas More, whose Utopia (1515) was at once a "no place" and a "good place" (from the Greek ou, meaning "non-", topos, meaning "place", and possibly eu, meaning "good").

Although actual behaviour and practice falls short of regulative ideals, the former will be interpreted within terms constituted by the latter (e.g., in widely different languages of "sin", "human frailty", "ill-discipline", "selfishness", "vulnerability", and so on). People do not simply live "a life"; it is a life conceived and coloured in particular ways, with "ends of life" in view, explicitly or implicitly (Thomas, 2009). As "self-interpreting animals" (Taylor, 1985), humans inevitably recognise and "talk" to themselves within socially sanctioned categorical schemes, which they reproduce, reinforce, and fashion. Regulative ideals provide coherence and overarching symbols, their presence entering the heartlands of what is thinkable, doable, and ethical. Everyday moral codes guide action that is attainable, for example, gestures of respect between feudal groups, prescribed/proscribed behaviour amongst neighbours, attitudes towards strangers, the required discipline of living in a monastic order, table manners, behaviour considered desirable in the marketplace, trading etiquette. Regulative ideals constitute limit-points, supporting the ultimate interpretation of these everyday codes, for example, being a "devout Christian subject", an "honest trading man", and so on.

 
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