Bad Girls of Art and Law: Abjection, Power, and Sexuality Exceptionalism in (Kara Walker’s) Art and (Janet Halley’s)

Adrienne D. Davis | 23 Yale Journal of Law & Feminism 1 (2012)

This paper seeks to make some connections between legal theorist Janet Halley and contemporary artist Kara Walker. It compares their recent oeuvre to show how both reject understandings of the interplay of sex, power, and subordination proffered by conventional “justice projects” - specifically civil rights’ and feminism’s articulations of bodily violence and violation as key modes of racial and gender injury and subordination. Neither of these two is the first to dispute such accounts of injury and identity; yet, what distinguishes them is that both attempt to ground their theoretical and aesthetic indictments in the notion of abjection, or the liberatory potential of suffering, degradation, and shame, particularly in sexual contexts. Both seek in abjection an alternative conception of bodies and power, one not rooted in civil rights’ and feminism’s first principles of equality, anti-subordination, and what Halley calls “minoritizing” impulses. This Essay disputes abjection as a conceptual grounding for Walker and Halley’s political and theoretical indictments. Abjection is classically associated with Julia Kristeva’s work in psychoanalysis, but gained political traction in queer theorist Leo Bersani’s call for a subversive sex-based queer identity. I contend that Halley’s theoretical invocation of Bersani’s abjection is misplaced, and that Walker’s aesthetic claims fall victim to similar misreadings. In fact, the Essay argues that the theoretical innovations of both versions of abjection lie in their engagements with power and identity, their interplay with loss, longing, and belonging in Kristeva’s classic iteration and with injury, rebellion, and politics in Bersani’s subversive one. In particular, Bersani’s notion of subversive abjection is hopelessly embedded in the very sorts of justice projects, identitarian claims, regulatory discourses, and material economies of bodies and power that Walker and Halley disavow. And, as I’ll show, feminism’s regulatory discourse of consent looms large in Bersani’s call for a sex-based queer identity. While their aesthetic and academic invocations of abjection are fascinating and provocative, the Essay concludes that neither Kristeva’s psychoanalytic turn nor Bersani’s political one endorses Halley and Walker’s embrace of dematerialized economies of bodies and disavowals of anti-subordination projects. The paper argues that Halley in particular has fallen prey to what might be thought of as a sort of sexuality exceptionalism, a deeply essentialist, almost Freudian, notion of sex as sacred, repressed, distinct from other bodily pleasures, and, because she views it as in need of liberation, exempt from regulation. (This is all the more odd given Halley’s queer commitments, including her professed skepticism of the power feminists attribute to sex.) In addition, reading Walker and Halley together poses some tough questions for Halley about some of the conceptual limits of her claims. The Essay concludes that Walker and Halley have joined the anti-identitarian zeitgeist in a peculiar way: rooting their disavowal projects in abjection, while fascinating, even more deeply embeds them in what they are trying to escape, investigations of material economies of injury, identity, and power. And, importantly for Halley, may undermine her professed goal of liberating shameful sex, instead leaving her susceptible to what I’ll characterize as sexuality exceptionalism. more...