1. “I’ve never understood catharsis.”
Since hearing Anne Carson say this in September 2015, how many times have I wanted to begin an essay or review with it? Several. But it never works out. Under her spell, I’m going to try something more elastic and unresolved here. I’m finding neat and orderly arguments too tedious these days, anyway . . .
2. Some background on that quote: Carson, chief translator of ancient Greek, was in conversation with the philosopher Simon Critchley and the dancer and choreographer Trajal Harrell for a roundtable I organized, prompted by Ivo van Hove’s new production of Sophokles’s Antigone at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. At some point in the middle of the conversation, Critchley suggested the idea “to liberate tragedy from the Aristotelian framework, and in particular the straitjacket orientation toward catharsis,” when Carson, who has long accomplished this in her translations, impassively shot back that line. It was an incredible expression of ambivalence coming from one of the foremost thinkers on the subject. Critchley then added that tragedy was a much more curious art form, more so than Aristotle and his followers let on, to which Carson nodded and replied, “more devastating.”
3. Despite the constant tethering of tragedy and catharsis, and the call for how much we need the latter—“Not since 1945 has the United States required catharsis like it does in 2021,” says Jason Farago in the Times—its meaning for the past 2,500 years has always been up for grabs, ill-defined. In Aristotle’s Poetics, he didn’t explain or define it, but mentioned a few pieces of relevant information, in order to introduce his thoughts on tragedy. See, for instance, section 1449b: “Tragedy . . . represents men in action and does not use narrative, and through pity and fear it effects relief to these and similar emotions.” His exact meaning of what this “relief,” which is sometimes translated as the word catharsis, entails has been the subject of ample critical debate because the term is so unclear, but I’m not interested in getting into that here. The main—and antiquated—idea is always that pity and fear must be purged, and this is supposed to be a learning experience about human suffering with some moral and therapeutic lesson attached to it.
But what if morality wasn’t what Aristotle had in mind? What if he meant something much more . . . devastating?
4. Despite the lack of clarity in the Poetics, there are 161 mentions of the word katharsis (κάθαρσις in the ancient Greek) and its cognates in the Aristotelian corpus according to the classicist Elizabeth Belfiore. 1 In 128 of these, Aristotle spoke of the word in its most literal sense, referring almost always to the evacuation of the katamēnia—menstrual fluid or other reproductive material from a patient. This is where things get interesting. 2
The statistics indicate that catharsis, for Aristotle, was primarily a biological and medical concept, linked to females—or, for him, “deformed males,” who are “weaker and colder in their nature.” 3 Hardly any other classicist, other than Belfiore, has linked catharsis to what Aristotle was most likely talking about: menstrual discharge. Critchley later took this up, in a book about Greek tragedy: “If the overwhelming majority of the uses of catharsis in Aristotle refer to physiological functions such as menstruation, then by virtue of what is one entitled to eliminate this meaning of the term in favor of purgation, purification, or transformation?” 4 It turns out catharsis holds some ancient misogynistic baggage—and it needs to be shelved.
5. Female trouble. A body denied. Julia Kristeva has long been a feminist guidepost for thinking through how fucked up it is that pity, fear, and disgust are so deeply associated with women. In her influential book Powers of Horror (1980), she famously took up the abject—the base, the impure, the “not me”—i.e., body fluids, such as menses. I’m not sure if Kristeva was aware of Aristotle’s emphasis on catharsis as catamenia. She doesn’t mention it in the book, if so.
Kristeva was more concerned with catharsis as a metaphor for purification. “The various means of purifying the abject—the various catharses—make up the history of religions and end up with that catharsis par excellence called art, both on the far and near side of religion,” she writes.5 For her, catharsis is an “impure” process that allows the artist or author to protect themselves from the abject only by immersing themselves within it.
As an undergraduate I inhaled this book, but now it leaves me craving more elucidation. All the psychoanalytic theorizing around the heteronormative family, all the unclear phrasing verging on jargon. It’s sometimes exasperating. Still, I’ll never give Kristeva up. Parts of Powers of Horror remain completely beguiling to me, namely the sections where she breaks down the coding of mothers as abject. (And speaking of physical expulsions, it’s not lost on me that I began this essay at the end of a pregnancy.)
“If I got rid of my two copies of Powers of Horror—even though I know I’ll never read either again,” writes Dodie Bellamy, “it would be as if I were rejecting my younger self, saying to my younger self I never really valued you.” 6 Too true.
6. Kristeva revolved some of her theorizing in Powers of Horror around Georges Bataille’s 1934 essay “Abjection and Miserable Forms.” Writing in the wake of Hitler’s rise, Bataille claimed that abjection is essential to the disciplinary forces of sovereignty, as a founding exclusion that constitutes at least one part of the public as moral outcasts, as “the dregs of the people, populace, and gutter.” 7 Under some racist, fascist, and colonial systems of power, these “waste populations” are “disinherited [from] the possibility of being human.” 8 As Hannah Arendt would later argue, they are then rendered excess, superfluous.
7. Bataille has similar thoughts in his entry on the informe (formless), in the Critical Dictionary of Documents, the journal he edited. The informe “is not only an adjective having a given meaning,” he writes, “but a term that serves to bring things down in the world, generally requiring that each thing have its form. What it designates has no rights in any sense and gets itself squashed everywhere, like a spider or an earthworm.”
In a Winter 1994 October roundtable, “The Politics of the Signifier II: A Conversation on the Informe and the Abject,” Denis Hollier aptly discussed Bataille’s thoughts on the informe, noting that its “status of incompletion is part of what is at stake.” Hollier claims that it is “bizarre . . . that concepts like the informe and the abject come back today in discourses that are empowered with a strange authority, succeeding in writing about Bataille’s last word.” 9
8. Could that “strange authority” also include the editors of October? In the roundtable, most of the participants come down hard on Kristeva: Hal Foster is weary of her “inside/outside model,” for instance, “whereby the foundational act of the subject is, paradoxically, to get rid of that which it is not.” Yve-Alain Bois has problems with her foundational base in nature (as opposed to history, I suppose). Most unenthusiastic is Rosalind Krauss, who goes so far to call Kristeva’s theorizing a “childish” misinterpretation of Bataille.
One of the more interesting arguments is put forward by Helen Molesworth: “The fact that blood, sperm, and anality are the most charged terms of abjection now has to be understood in relation to HIV.” 10 At the time, many contemporary artists were using blood in their work—Andres Serrano comes to mind first—though none of these artists were included in Krauss and Bois’s famed exhibition “L’Informe: mode d’emploi” (Formless: Instructions for Use) at the Centre Georges Pompidou in 1996.
Perhaps this was because blood was too “referential” for them. What ensues right after Molesworth’s statement sounds like a debate about art and representation that could be happening right now:
Krauss: I have a lot of problems with this kind of decision that representation is always attached to specific, politicized referential fields.
Foster: When is representation not a politicized field? The question is not if it is, but how to understand it and to act in it. And here there is not much to choose, methodologically or tactically, between an iconography of certain themes and a structure of pure oppositions. Neither is satisfactory.
Krauss: What would satisfy you?
Foster: There is always a network of signifiers of the body. That network changes, and that has to be historicized. To dismiss it all as “referential” is a big mistake.
“The body:” it’s Krauss’s “phobic object,” as she says. For Foster, it’s not so literal because it could be both semiotic and referential, natural and constructed. The network changes.
Perhaps the best-known essay on the informe is Krauss’s “Informe without Conclusion,” from 1996. (It is also the final chapter of “Formless: A User’s Guide,” the exhibition’s accompanying catalogue.) Here, Krauss parses out the differences between Bataille’s informe and Kristeva’s abject. She prefers to use the “psychiatric term ‘borderline’” to describe the abject-as-intermediary, between subject and object. This only extends the misogynic gendering: “[C]aught up within a suffocating, clinging maternal lining, the mucous-membranous surround of bodily odors and substances, the child’s losing battle for autonomy is performed as a kind of mimicry of the impassibility of the body’s own frontier.”
9. Art, for Arendt, stems from our capacity for thought—and thinking, like the informe, is an endless activity, a structure of doing and undoing. After the emergence of totalitarianism in the twentieth century, Arendt famously argued that standards of judgements could no longer be relied upon and that people needed to constantly engage in the activity of thinking and continually find new concepts.
In The Human Condition, she discusses how artworks reify thought into the world: “Works of art are thought things,” she says, and they give life meaning. Thought inspires an artist to put their work or insight into the world. She fleshes out these ideas more in her essay “The Crisis in Culture,” wherein she discusses how art builds a meaningful world and how important this cultivation is to building stable societies. I have issues with some of Arendt’s thinking about art’s durability though I try not to get hung up on her love of making distinctions too much. What set my mind on fire is her unique rejection of catharsis.
10. Contra Aristotle, Arendt’s idea is that thinking allows for feelings (such as pity and fear) to be reified and made into an actual thing: an artwork. “Thought is related to feeling and transforms its mute and inarticulate despondency, as exchange transforms the naked greed of desire and usage transforms the desperate longing of needs,” she writes, “until they are all fit to enter the world and to be transformed into things, to become reified.” 11 This is a freeing up of the subject from mere consciousness, from “an imprisonment within the self,” as she notes.
So, there’s no need for a moral lesson; no need for catharsis, which no one understands, anyway.
Next from this Volume
by Aria Dean
“Blackness presents the possibility of a thoroughly anti-Idealist aesthetic and theory of objects.”