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Abstract

This Article draws 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; what distinguishes them is that both attempt to ground their indictments in the notion of abjection, or the liberatory potential of suffering, degradation, and shame, particularly in sexual contexts. This Article 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 theoretical innovations of both versions of abjection lie in their engagements with power and identity; Bersani's notion of subversive abjection in particular is embedded in the very sorts of justice projects identitarian claims, regulatory discourses, and material economies of bodies and power that Walker and Halley disavow. While their aesthetic and academic invocations of abjection are fascinating and provocative, the Article 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. It argues that Halley in particular has fallen prey to what I characterize as sexuality exceptionalism, a deeply essentialist, almost Freudian notion of sex as sacred, repressed, distinct from other bodily pleasures, and exempt from regulation. Furthermore, reading Walker and Halley in tandem poses some interesting questions for Halley about both the conceptual and regulatory limits of her claims. The Article concludes that Walker and Halley have joined the anti-identitarian zeitgeist in a peculiar way: rooting their 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.

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