For our podcast, Collective Nightmares, we went to a screening of Kuso (2017). We were primarily intrigued by the IMDb trivia that it was called by Verge, “The grossest movie ever made.” It sure seemed like something we should watch.
Dr. Laura Patterson described watching Kuso, the first film by artist Flying Lotus, as, “… more like going to an art museum than watching a movie.” It is that. But throughout my viewing experience I sensed a strong connection to a concept I’ve been intrigued and challenged by for some years. This is an effort to better understand both Flying Lotus’ Kuso (2017) and Kristeva’s (1982) concept of abjection.
I had been re-reading Kristeva’s Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (1982) before going to see Kuso. Kristeva’s work is dense, challenging, and abstruse. Situated in semiotic deconstructions of psychotherapy, specifically Freud and Lacan, Kristeva expands on Mary Douglas’ Purity and Danger as well as Levi-Strauss’ structural anthropology of incest (1971). She draws from sources as far apart as Judeo-Islamic-Christian beliefs of sacred and profane via the King James Bible, the Torah, and the Koran, to the literary works of Celiné and Bataille. From all this Kristeva identifies her objectives, “… there is nothing “loathsome” in itself; the loathsome is that which disobeys classification rules peculiar to the given symbolic system. … I keep asking questions. Why that system of classification and not another? What social, subjective, and socio-subjectively interacting needs does it fulfill? (Kristeva, 92). She adopts a radical social constructionist perspective.
Social constructionists assert that nothing people do or experience is inherently right or wrong. Our understandings of anything and everything are created through interaction, especially language. Kristeva pushes this further to say the categories of right and wrong that a group develops can be reverse engineered to be reveal underlying beliefs and systems of thought. A parallel argument about horror was made by Robin Wood when he argued that, “… horror films: they are our collective nightmares” (117). In other words, by looking at the horror movies of a time and place, we can work backwards to figure out what the most prominent fears and anxieties of those people. For example, with the atomic age and the race to space with the Russians in the 1950s, led to horror movies about nuclear mutations as well as aliens from outer space.
Kristeva’s explorations focus on corpses, menstruation, defilement, decay, sacrifice, incest, food, and skin. In her chapter “Semiotics of Biblical Abomination” Kristeva identifies “three major categories of abomination: 1) food taboos; 2) corporeal alteration and its climax, death; and 3) the feminine body and incest.” (93). The meta-themes are the creation, transgression, and functions of boundaries, mental, physical, and cultural. This culminates with her arguing abjection is the root concept, that which underlies and unifies these categorizations. In as much as Judeo-Islamic-Christian beliefs inform Western civilization, the
Kuso mashes together unsightly fluids, misshapen bodies, abnormal creatures, monstrous circumstances. Boundaries disappear as combinations challenge categories we weren’t even aware that we relied on. Decay and waste become food. Every body is blistered and boiled. Bodily deformities become sentient characters. Women are both mistreated and presented as versions most repulsive to society: one discredited by being raped and only casually interested in aborting the fetus. Another woman stalks her child through subterranean wreckage to kill it. Kristeva’s abject and Lotus’ Kuso reveal and illustrate one another.
Experiencing the content of Kuso is a deconstruction of the psyche. In Freudian terms, initially it would seem to be pure Id, unfiltered drives thrown on screen. An indulgence. But the film is far too focused and deliberate for that. A better way to describe the experience is arguably an exhaustion of the superego, our internalized cultural rules, by attrition. By the final credits, one’s components of the psyche have been mushed together.
The superego must work so hard to restrain visceral and powerful reactions of disgust to such calculated violations of right and wrong for so long, Kuso wears it down to a nub. Then without a superego, we might imagine the id freed from superego restraints, would spill over, take over the ego. Viewers might leave feeling impulsive and indulgent. In fact, the id has been run through such unmitigated primal indulgences for so long it too is exhausted.
Finally, the ego. The superego and id lay used up on the ego’s couch. They hope it can offer some reprieve. But Kuso does not traffic in pleasure and pain. Movies usually offer something familiar for the ego to process: sexual arousal, empathetic emotion, even fear, horror, or amusement. Kuso instead offers abhorrence, dis-ease, and disgust. And it does so in a narrative structure that barely offers context punctuated by psychedelic Gilliam-esque animated interludes. The ego ends up desperately trying to hold on for dear life to some semblance of reality. I imagine the ego, superego, and id sprawled, bruised and broken, in a pile on a mattress in a decrepit apartment. Sobbing, holding each other.
Watching Kuso is closer to an ego-death via film than I would have thought possible. I can only imagine what watching it with an altered consciousness would achieve. I certainly do not suggest it for any but the practiced psychonaut. I am not an amateur in that realm but I know I’m not ready for that combination.
Post Kuso, appetite or nourishment; sexual, nutritional, or otherwise, feel like distant memories. One’s body feels like an ill-fitting suit. Emotions feel dangerous. Speaking seems futile. Using the bathroom, something so primitive, now feels foreign and pre-psychosexual. As though you’re just a tube squeezing contents through. While washing up, the automatic soap dispenser splooged onto my hands. I literally shuddered. Involuntarily. Kuso had made the most mundane tasks of life problematic.
Still, the psychoanalytic deconstruction of Kristeva is not the most intriguing part of understanding Kuso as abjection. “It is thus not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite” (4). Kuso in both form and content does this. A film that confronts rather than entertains or narrates. Hallucinogenic animations intercede throughout bizarre storylines barely threaded together. Grotesque humans are characters, but so too are orificial stumps, fuzzy anthropomorphic screens, and anus arachnids.
Kuso dives right in with “Royal the Boil” (these sections names are borrowed from Wikipedia). The initial scenes of Missy and Kenneth fucking, where the result is a mix of semen and infection, reveling in the sensual oral exploration of puss and pustules, resides firmly in the abject. Infections do still kill. Eroticizing sores, fluids, abscesses disturbs identity and the system of the body. Puss is produced only by sickness but is also the result of healing. It is both “protein-rich” and full of “dead leukocytes” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pus). Thus, it is in-between both dying and healing. This challenges a fundamental binary of much Western thought. Semen is sexualized body fluid, often hypersexualized. It is the blending of pus and semen, eroticizing the product of this mixture, that further escalates the abjection.
Flying Lotus is far from apex for even this segment. The primary boil, springing from Missy’s neck, the one initially covered, is revealed to be a face, alive. Its name is Royal. It is malformed, grotesque. This further disturbs identity and boundaries. And again, rather than merely presenting the monstrous and revulsive, Flying Lotus delves deeper and Kenneth (face?) fucks it.
“Debility is that ground … where “intimate” suffering, both physical and psychic joins with sexual excess. There is nothing pornographic, nothing attractive or exciting in such a baring of instincts. Caught on the black slope where desire founders in drive or affect, where representations are blurred, where significations vanish, this form of sex is an inebriation, another word for debilitated suffering. (Pp. 147-8).
Perhaps we could comprehend fucking such a thing if we were coerced, if it was hateful, rape, or with disgust. An action to punish such an abomination. But presented as tantalizing, titillating, and fetishized is something else. It is abject.
The boil is a sexual entity, one that is both part of Missy and separate. While revulsion, or tolerance, or even acceptance would provide a normalization, Kenneth’s willingness for oral sex with Royal, violates the range of possibilities. Flying Lotus has managed to implode Rule 34 (if it exists, there is pornography of it). There is nothing pornographic about this pornography.
My single favorite quote by the sexuality scholar Gayle Rubin should demonstrate I am no prude.
“Most people find it difficult to grasp that whatever they like to do sexually will be thoroughly repulsive to someone else, and that whatever repels them sexually will be the most treasured delight of someone, somewhere. One need not like or perform a sex act to recognize that someone else will, and that this difference does not indicate a lack of good taste, mental health, or intelligence in either party. Most people mistake their sexual preferences for a universal system that will or should work for everyone” (p. 283).
I understand and value this. I respect Rubin’s argument deeply. As with cultural relativism there are limits (aware and enthusiastic consent is non-negotiable). But otherwise, who are we to judge the sexuality of others? My reactions to the Missy, Kenneth, Royal the boil, ménage à trois were such powerful condemnation that they tempted my judgment.
I have a PhD in sociology focusing on media and sexuality. I am a radical social constructionist. I have seen genres and scenes of pornography that challenge my personal boundaries as well as deeply held cultural divisions: bestiality with various mammal species, with insects (particularly upsetting to me as I have multiple entomophobias), scat porn, pregnancy porn, “shock” videos, etc. While these all challenged me, some very intensely, I still retain the argument that consent and pleasure are the means for judging sexual experience. If all parties are enjoying and enthusiastically participating, who are we to judge? (I recognize the issues of consent in bestiality and appreciate that debate. However, arguably most people object to the practice not out of concern for the animal’s consent.) Flying Lotus leaps well past these to an inversion of porn. My viewing experience that most closely approximates Kuso is 2 Girls 1 Cup, if 2 Girls 1 Cup were presented artfully with a narrative, blebs, and hallucinogenic animated segues.
For those who might not know, 2 Girls 1 Cup (Wikipedia link, I leave the curious to find the source video on their own), a scene from Hungry Bitches (Fiorito, 2007) was the shock video of the mid 2000s. And upon reflection, one that is also reveling in the abject. Reaction videos of those watching 2 Girls 1 Cup for the first time became more popular than the original video. These in turn were used by the creator as defense against accusation of it being pornographic. He claimed no one experienced the clip as titillating and thus it could not be obscene. (This does raise some very interesting questions, but beyond the scope of this essay: Namely, can that which is abject be sexualized? eroticized? If/when the abject is sexualized, eroticized, what then?)
The video 2 Girls 1 Cup is abject, particularly because of the prevalence of vomit and diarrhea, both body fluids that belie separations. Vomit is rejection of everything in the stomach. It can be triggered by body or mind, or both. Any nutrients or food cannot be separated from that which poisons, so everything goes, all mixed together. Shit is waste and produces revulsion, but as a semi-solid it is containable, both literally and figuratively. Diarrhea is abject where shit is not (necessarily, more later) because diarrhea is neither just solid nor just waste. Liquid and solid, diarrhea is excretion of both waste and the precious water of life. Dehydration from diarrhea still kills millions each year. Vomit also ejects indiscriminately, including water and sustenance. In Kuso, face-fucking a pus-sy boil orifice to ejaculation and ecstasy was a vomiting/diarrhea of libido and death, eros and thanatos. A concoction of fluids of sex, life, and death.
Another section of the film “Smear,” involves defecation, feces, and excremental food. Kristeva discusses the abject-ness of food. “Food becomes abject only if it is a border between two distinct entities or territories. … food is the oral object (the abject) that sets up archaic relationships between the human being and the other, its mother, who wields a power that is as vital as it is fierce” (75-6). Charlie’s mother presents him with a bowl of “food,” stretching the definition of that word beyond meaning, challenging the borders of edible. Kristeva discusses the visceral recoiling at soured milk. Her experience of milk is very much the experience of Kuso so I have included the full quotation.
“Food loathing is perhaps the most elementary and most archaic form of abjection. When the eyes see or the lips touch that skin on the surface of milk–harmless, thin as a sheet of cigarette paper, pitiful as a nail pairing–I experience a gagging sensation and, still farther down, spasms of the stomach, the belly; and all the organs shrivel up the body, provoke tears and bile, increase heartbeat, cause forehead and hands to perspire” (p. 2-3).
Among other consumption of all manner of supperations and secretions, Charlie faces a bowl of black-grey, pulsating, chunked, stew. My description cannot do it justice. This slurry and slop leads to Charlie nauseated and farting in school. The teacher writing “disease” on the chalkboard, stops to approach Charlie. Putting his face at Charlie’s behind, he carefully wafts and tastes this apparently horrid stench. Ridiculed by other students, Charlie, humiliated, flees. “Excrement and its equivalents (decay, infection, disease, corpse, etc.) stand for the danger to identity that comes from without: the ego threatened by the non-ego, society threatened by its outside, life by death” (71). Charlie is a threat to society. His inability to control his bowels that reek of death contaminates the public when he enters.
Clearly transgressive, Flying Lotus again pushes beyond to where it becomes abject –threatening to the psyche. Charlie encounters a sort of shit pustule with a sphincter orifice and tongue. He feeds this by luxuriously smearing dog shit onto the tongue. Then another bowl of slop, force fed to Charlie this time, but with an eyeball and writhing maggots. Charlie vomits the eyeball, inserting into the socket of the face within the tongued sphincter. Shitty food, savoring flatulence, shit as food, then a face in the anus … Lotus is drawing well outside the lines of typical divisions of excremental or consumable.
There is no birth in Kuso, instead there is pregnancy as the result of rape. A pregnancy that is aborted. “But blood, as a vital element, also refers to women, fertility, and assurance of fecundation. It thus becomes a fascinating semantic crossroads, the propitious place for abjection where death and femininity, murder and procreation, cessation of life and vitality all come together” (Kristeva, 96). Kristeva references menstrual material as well as the state of pregnancy to explore the abjection of women in western religious beliefs. In Kuso, B’s friends, Kazo and Mazu extract her fetal tissue, and casually toss it to her. Between even menstrual material and fetus, themselves states that challenge categorization, B holds the mass of cells, her hands covered in blood. She laughs with relief and suggests they smoke it. Spanning and defying categories: blood, fetus, plaything, inhalant.
In “Sock,” a woman, Angel, hoping to sacrifice her infant, she searches for it in cavernous concrete tunnels. Angel herself is put through a symbolic birth. While perhaps surprisingly bloodless, presenting birth with rape, infanticide sacrifice, fetal consumption, and the regurgitation of a mother, pushes the abject beyond the purview of what Kristeva discusses. The complication of barriers, limits, and states described by Kristeva with fertility and birth, Lotus further inverts and dissolves these divisions. Some of the genius of Lotus and Kuso is his ability to find the abject and then drive it further. And then further. Others have dealt with rape, infanticide sacrifice, fetal consumption, and even the regurgitation of a mother, but all at once is another matter.
Dwelling on disturbances to skin, to the barrier that literally divides self from not, is another motif of Kuso. Kristeva, in discussing the abjection of leprosy explains, “the disease visibly affects the skin, the essential if not initial boundary of biological and psychic individuation” (101). Again, while not leprotic, Kuso invokes it then pushes beyond. Rife with pustules, malformations, wounds seeping indeterminate fluids, blisters, every and all manner of this base separation the skin should provide, per Kristeva. “Any secretion or discharge, anything that leaks out of the feminine or masculine body defiles” (102). Kuso is awash in body fluids. Fluids not just “leaking” but that are lathered, blended, frothed, stirred, tasted.
Kuso is a master class in abjection. Flying Lotus has said it is a film that is not for everyone (Handsome Rambler Podcast March 2, 2017). The people who are curious and able to take on the experience will find it – and they will find it to be something. Arguably it is a film virtually no one can ignore. There are those who will detach; understandably unable to engage with what they are experiencing. Their psyches recoiled into a protective shell. They will still find Kuso seeping in, oozing past cultural, interpersonal, and psychic barriers, revealing just how fragile and porous they truly are.
If you liked this essay please listen to our Kuso podcast episode.
2 Girls 1 Cup. 2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2_Girls_1_Cup. Accessed July 18, 2018.
Douglas, Mary. 1966. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concept of Pollution and Taboo. London, NY: Routledge
Kristeva, Julia. 1982. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. New York: Columbia University Press.
Kuso. 2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kuso_(film). Accessed July 18th 2018.
Levi-Strauss, Claude. 1971. The Elementary Structures of Kinship. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Rubin, Gayle. 1984. “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality.” Pp. 267-319 in Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality, edited by Carole S. Vance. London, UK: Routledge.
Wood, Robin. 2004. “An Introduction to the American Horror Film.” Pp. 107-41 in Planks of Reason Essays on the Horror Film, Revised Edition. Edited by Barry Keith Grant and Christopher Sharrett. Lanham, MA: The Scarecrow Press, Inc.