Allure and Abjection: The Possible Potential of Severed Qualities

Frenchy Lunning, ‘Allure and Abjection: The Possible Potential of Severed Qualities’, pp.83-105, in: Behar, K. (Ed.), 2016. Object-oriented feminism. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.


This is a tale of two gestures that meet in the heat of a metaphoric confrontation of transformation. In comparing Graham Harman’s work on allure juxtaposed with Julia Kristeva’s work on abjection, certain relationships, similarities, and movements suggest a way to read across each of their central metaphors in structure and movement, and in their implications of marginal identities and aesthetic locations.

Both Harman and Kristeva offer unique aspects that can be used in critiquing the other, such as in the intriguing leftovers of severed qualities or “dark agents” found in the gaps between objects and the note-objects created in the metaphoric gesture of the abjection process.

In the explication of both movements is the use of the metaphor as a mode of narration to explain the invisible, the real / not real, and the possibilities of the desire–disgust binary as not only the generator of the gestures of separation and attraction but also the landscape of a potential agency, as they lie at the very limits of representation.


In investigating object-oriented ontology’s “landscape of entangled object stuff which has given us the diagram . . . of the object world,” Harman asks, where is the key to activating this “difference engine”? It arrives in the form of a special situation in the interaction of objects called allure and seems to operate in the aesthetic realms.

[Ref Harman]

Allure, which provides the process for metaphor, does not take us any closer to the object—but merely translates it into object language— redolent with the pull of the now withdrawn object, but engineering a mysterious exchange of qualities that are left in the gap of the conceptual field that is the heart of the metaphor.

So now to the mechanics of the operation: we know that the mechanism of change occurs in the amniotic fluid of bubbling masses of elements that have been issued from the sensual object and have become object-like, but still approachable, still mobile. Their qualities are, in fact—in their elemental form—the sensual notes of the sensual object (not to be confused by the notes of the object itself ) that remain behind.

Harman begins with a general rule: one object seems to convert another object into notes, although in metaphor, the notes themselves are somehow converted into objects.


The resulting and unrelenting gap formed in the fire of this exchange, or “duel” as Harman calls it, is precisely where meaning resides—always tentative, provisional, and wavering—but never actually “breaking or melting together,” as Harman would have it, instead creating a shimmering haze of potential that thrusts the objects into the aesthetic realm, making it perceivable only through imaginative cognition.


Such a metaphoric play is found in much of Kristeva’s work on abjection. Her most famous metaphor for abjection has characterized this movement as a gesture of a violent repulsing thrusting aside of “otherness”—the otherness that is the “subject/object”—as I refer to the subject in the language of Harman, or “I.”

Abjection entails a denial of an aspect of self, a denial that appears desirable within a regime that expects it. Abjection generates a phantom object—to use another term from the OOO lexicon—an ever-present shadow of “dark agents” dogging the subject’s every move and disturbing its identity, system, and order, without respect for borders, positions, or rules.


It is a state in which meaning breaks down, in which we are left trying to locate the boundaries of self and other, subject and object. It is before language, before words can comfort with their defining and naming functions, and thus removing the dread of the drifting amorphous state between abjection and language.

In Kristeva’s metaphoric formation, it is the mother, the defining subject/object position for females, which is necessarily thrust aside.This leaves the emerging female subject/object in a rather sticky spot, especially under patriarchal conditions. For under the patriarchy, women are reduced to various image-objects of their singular and necessary function of reproduction: not just the mother, but also the bodacious babe who is codified and commodified in terms of breeding potential. As such, women are abjected and degraded as objects in all senses of the word, and so is any linkage with the maternal and feminine objects in the culture. The coded trappings of feminine objects—the notes of these objects—and especially those clustered around the extreme manifestations of feminine qualities, are thus regarded as cloying, obnoxious, and disgusting objects.


To begin the translation, and thus discover the potential for agency, by reading abjection through the process of allure, we can use Harman’s forms of vicarious causation in which he posits allure as “a good candidate for providing a key to the other forms of such inter- action, serving as a kind of primitive atom-smasher for exposing the simplest workings of relationality.”


Following this causal bond into the process of allure, we can see how the disgust of the mature matriarchal female body and its promise of heavy breasts and abdomen run up against the ideal of the thin, fashion model body so prevalent in all forms of popular media. In Harman’s metaphor, the qualities of the image of the maternal female object “breaks loose from its own qualities and meets them in a kind of duel” in collision with both the image of the fashion model and its loose qualities—and the loosened qualities of the subject/object.

But a potential for agency arises within the fever of transforming severed qualities confronting other female-related but severed qualities swirling near the abjected subject/object. This formation congeals, through the process of allure, other and perhaps positive qualities, and are cast into metaphoric, constructed, and idealized identity objects.


As the highly mediated and fan-produced conception of a historical—yet entirely fictive—subject/object of the Victorian young girl, the Lolita is a direct response to the abjection of maturity.The consequent desire for agency and power is paradoxically configured through a metaphor as a masquerade of the severed qualities of innocence and purity: the infantilized signs of cute heroines proliferated in popular culture and media.


[In the Victorian era] The obsessive concern over deployments of purity and cleanliness signified the culture’s intense abjection of the contamination of the foreign and feminine body/objects. These associations with bodily fluids and excrement rendered a cultural fetishizing of vestments that provided not only protection for the body from outside contamination objects but, in terms of the notes of the feminine, a way to constrain, manipulate, and label female bodies.

And it is here, in this very specific time and place (late nineteenth-century Paris) where we can further observe abjection involved in a more complex level of allure as a hyperobject—or, as I tend to think of it, a hyperobject agent—which in its sweeping active abjecting motion creates a cultural movement in which one gender, abjected by another, leads to the male-heroicized culture of the hyperobject that is modernism, evidenced by its severed qualities of abjection made visible on the sartorial subject/ objects of the time.


[Describes telling and transgressive clothing behaviours: the three-piece suit, couture design and fetish clothing]


The theories of ethics that evolve in that aesthetic phase in nineteenth-century France reveal weak and lame attempts at bandaging the gaping wounds that broke open on the bodies of those fin de siècle subject/objects.


It is in this rather fearful and hysterical consideration that the suggestion emerged that the objects that were the subject of obsessional sexual fixations could so pervert the attentions of the male subject/object that he would not be able to respond to the “proper object.”

That “proper object” was the wife in a marital relationship where children would be the result of desire, and it was only through a moral restructuring toward the “family” that the male would recover his drive.

As for the position of female subject/objects in this same time, the role of the Salon contributed to their growing political and cul- tural influence in Paris of the late nineteenth century, promoting discussion of contemporary events and thinking among both men and women who attended these salons. The central concern for feminists in this period was a pervasive, toxic hegemony of masculine authority and control referred to as masculinisme.


Yet more revealing among the myriad profound restrictions to the body and soul of women by masculinisme, and certainly in terms of the formation of the fetishizing of clothing objects and fashion, is what Patrick Bidelman refers to as the restrictions to personal mobility—particularly as it concerned the rules of dress for women. In France at this time, it was against the law for women to wear pants.

Women’s clothing was radically gendered, by law and by class, as the “elaborate and expensive costumery worn by women became visible icons of male prosperity and class status.”

As representative objects of the abjected past, women’s clothes were heavily layered with undergarments, all of which were obsessively overdetailed in a rigidly specific and heavily coded fashion. Undergarment objects were white or the natural muslin color as a boundary of cleanliness against the moist “impurities” of the female body-object: the source of feminine fluids, especially menstrual blood.


An idealized form has been set aside for the young female subject/object, one that was valorized in the Victorian period, one that evokes a particular “scene” of innocence, purity, sweetness, and a feminine qualities whose power is derived not from her ability to reproduce but from her power as an aesthetic image of a potentially “pure and innocent” sexuality.

Thus metaphor provides a transformation in identity of subject/objects, and ultimately, in the culture—itself a metaphor for the vast hive of eternally transforming severed qualities—the active agent-objects of cultural production. This is the key to the revolutionary and paradoxical agency created in the allure of the severed qualities, soldered together through metaphor, to form new objects and, ultimately, the hyperobject theater of transforming cultures.

This demonstration was but a mere example of the cultural hyper-object in a state of allure. Its potential lies in the actual dissection of the transformation of various Victorian women’s clothing into the fetish objects they became and, in various forms, remain active today. The actual exchange phase of objects and their notes and qualities, extended over time and space—from about the 1870s to the 1890s— and through allure, created a variety of “dark agents” from across the social, military, cultural, governmental, medical, fashion, and economic object-clusters and communities.


As Harman asserts, “Allure, with its severing of objects and qualities, is the paradigm shift of the senses,” but also, in the hyperobject, the culture as it is made visible through its subject/objects at large.