Eroticism in Repulsion: An Affective Reading of Carolee Schneemann’s “Meat Joy”

Written by Margaux Shraiman

Edited by Gabby Marcuzzi Herie

Abject art is a category used to describe artworks which explore transgressive themes and threaten our sense of cleanliness and propriety––specifically works that reference the body and bodily functions. The abject has strong ties to feminist theory, in that “female bodily functions in particular are ‘abjected’ by a patriarchal social order.”[i] Carolee Schneemann’s 1964 performance ​Meat Joy, with its transgressive aesthetics of disgust and discomfort, clearly falls into this genre. ​The definition of affect as a “gradient of bodily capacity” directly related to one’s sensory capacities recalls Julia Kristeva’s definition of abjection.[ii] The abject is the human reaction to when the visceral interior realm becomes exterior and therefore visible, disrupting societal norms and conventional identity. My paper will argue that the abject, as defined by Julia Kristeva, engenders an affective response as exemplified by Carolee Schneemann’s performance ​Meat Joy.​ I will use a comparative approach, incorporating scholarly sources on both affect theory and abjection as well as primary and secondary sources relating to Schneemann’s work such as magazine articles, reviews, interviews, and video footage of the performance. My paper will begin with a literary review which will define the terms central to my argument: the affect and the abject. I will then explore the relationship between the two concepts, which will be demonstrated through the case study of Schneemann’s renowned performance.​This paper contributes to the multiple and often overlapping debates surrounding the affective turn in the arts and humanities from the mid-1990s onward. Although a body of important scholarship on Schneemann has emerged since the 1960s, there is no authoritative source analyzing the affective modalities at play in her influential performance of ​Meat Joy​. 

Carolee Schneemann, Meat Joy. Chromogenic colour print of the performance in New York. 4 × 5″ (10.2 × 12.7 cm). © 2017 Carolee Schneemann.

The Affect 

Scholars throughout the centuries have offered a wide variety of definitions of ​the affect, from Baruch Spinoza all the way to Brian Massumi. However, for the sake of this discussion I will employ a physiologically-based approach. Silvan Tomkins, ​an American psychologist, personality theorist, and one of the originators of contemporary affect theory, proposed the existence of nine basic affects: shame, interest, surprise, joy, anger, fear, distress, disgust, and contempt (or ‘‘dissmell’’).[iii] “Affect in Tomkins’s usage of the term, is not a discrete intrapsychic structure, but a kind of free radical that…attaches to and permanently intensifies or alters the meaning of—of almost anything: a zone of the body, a sensory system, a prohibited or indeed a permitted behaviour, another affect such as anger or arousal, a named identity, a script for interpreting other people’s behavior toward oneself.”[iv]

According to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, ​an American scholar specialized in queer theory who worked extensively on the affective theories of Silvan Tompkins​, the affect is not synonymous with emotion. Affect is a feeling, whereas emotion is more complex: it is the combination of a feeling plus a memory. Affect is at the level of the unconscious, at the level of the embodiment. Sedgwick’s definition of the affect bears marked resemblances to that of scholars Greg Seigworth of Millersville University and Melissa Gregg from the University of Sydney. They argue that “Affect arises in the midst of in-betweenness: in the capacities to act and be acted upon.”[v] According to their book ​The Affect Theory Reader, affect can be found in ‘intensities’ or ‘resonances’ that pass between bodies, whether they be human, nonhuman, part-body, or otherwise. “At its most anthropomorphic, affect is the name we give to those forces—visceral forces beneath, alongside, or generally other than conscious knowing, vital forces insisting beyond emotion—that can serve to drive us toward movement.”[vi] For Seigworth and Gregg, affect is in many ways synonymous with force, or forces of encounter, although an affect is not necessarily forceful. Furthermore, affect can be understood as a “gradient of bodily capacity—a supple incrementalism of ever-modulating force-relations—that rises and falls not only along various rhythms and modalities of encounter but also through the troughs and sieves of sensation and sensibility, an incrementalism that coincides with belonging to comportments of matter of virtually any and every sort.”[vii]

The Abject 

The abject is a complex psychological, linguistic and philosophical concept developed by the Franco-Bulgarian scholar and critic Julia Kristeva in her 1980 book Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection​. ​According to Kristeva, the abject refers to the “human reaction to a threatened breakdown in meaning caused by the loss of the distinction between subject and object or between self and other.”[viii] The primary example of such a reaction is a corpse, which traumatically reminds us of our own mortality and materiality. However, there are many other objects and substances that can elicit the same reaction. These range from the most grotesque to the most mundane: an open wound, sewage, excrement, vomit, and even the skin that forms on the surface of warm milk. The abject is associated with “what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules.”[ix] Kristeva characterizes the abject as a “primal repression,” one that precedes the establishment of the subject’s relation to its objects of desire and of representation.[x] The body takes centre stage in the ambiguous experience of disgust due to the collective fear of otherness. ​The abject––which evokes both loathing and fascination––“frightens when it manifests itself as bodily excretion because it is not the body itself, yet still a part of it… It must be expelled to keep intact the border between inside and outside and to prevent corporeal decay.”[xi]

Meat Joy, 1964. chromogenic colour print of the performance in New York. © 2018 Carolee Schneemann/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; The Museum of Modern Art, P.P.O.W, and Galerie Lelong, New York.

The abject, as defined by Kristeva, can be read as an affective response due to its nature as a physiological force. There is a direct link between Tomkins’ conceptualization of the specific affects of disgust and joy and the abject, which is associated with both fear and jouissance. Sedgwick’s argument that affect should be understood as “discursively constructed,” a bodily capacity just like sexuality, is also applicable to the abject, which is contingent on the disruption of socio-cultural norms.[xii] Additionally, Kristeva’s theory of the abject as a disruptive force directly relates to Deleuze’s concept of ​perturbation​, his word for disturbances in the atmosphere that constitute situations, releasing subjects from the normativity of intuition and making them available for alternative ordinaries.[xiii]

Meat Joy performance, which Schneemann termed “kinetic theater,” reflected the liberationist spirit of the early 1960s––tapping into darker political realities, specifically the opposition to the Vietnam War and the budding movement of second wave feminism.[xiv] Meat Joy ​was the first of several performances and films in which Schneemann used a painterly language to explore radical concepts related to sexuality and femininity. On a grainy and turbulent film interspersed with static, viewers can observe eight quasi-nude men and women crawling, rolling, and writhing about together amidst newspapers onstage, playing with raw sausages, entire chickens, fish, red paint, plastic film, and ropes to the sound of a pop soundtrack written by the composer James Tenney. Their slithering and cavorting figures engage and expel, merge and ooze, in an ever-changing and multi-faceted dance of flesh. Designed, directed and performed by Carolee Schneemann, Meat Joy is described by the artist as an ‘erotic rite’ and a ‘celebration of flesh as material.’[xv] The work was first performed in Paris in 1964, before being immortalized on film later that year at the Judson Memorial Church.[xvi] The performance resembles a Dionysian rite––celebrating the tactility of bodies in all incarnations. Today, although the performance can only be seen only on a blurry and turbulent film montage, the work is a landmark of not only the feminist art movement but also of performance art as a genre. Rooted in unabashed eroticism and sensuality, ​Meat Joy is representative of one of the main themes of Carolee Schneemann’s body of work: female sexuality and empowering women to regain control over their bodies. Through the choreographed dialogue between dancers of both genders, the performance emphasizes that women can be as overtly sexual and sensual as men. In challenging the “cinematic norm of the fixed authoritative and typically masculine point of view” she convincingly melded the personal and the conceptual with the political.[xvii] Additionally, Schneemann wanted to challenge social taboos against open and public sensuality––overt female sexuality in particular––and attempted to use this performance as a way to begin to break down existing barriers. 

Meat Joy, ​at its most basic level, performs a being’s capacity to be touched, or affected, by the abject. The stark contrast between the joyous music playing and the ecstatic expressions on the dancers’ faces and the physical reality of the scene––which was covered in blood, carcasses, and debris––is reminiscent of three of the nine affects brought forward by Silvan Tomkins: joy, disgust and dissmell. ​The performance is a kind of grotesque participatory ballet. The artist seeks to shock the public through unclean, viscous, and atypical orgiastic aesthetics, however there is simultaneously a very real element of joy emanating from the beautiful, smiling, youthful actors dancing to sugary pop music. This affective dichotomy between ​attractiveness and repulsion allows an absurdist aesthetic to emerge. This absurdism contrasts with the visceral reaction of viewers in the face of such a spectacle––thus drawing the audience into dialogue with the work through their discomfort. 

This participatory character of Schneemann’s performance, as well as her presentation of herself as artist as well as subject, can be traced back to Antonin Artaud’s Théâtre de la Cruauté​. ​Schneemann has often cited the writings of Artaud as a foundational inspiration for her work.[xviii]​ Breaking away from the highly discursive Western theatrical tradition, ​le Théâtre de la Cruauté involved ​artists assaulting the senses of the audience in order to allow them to feel the unexpressed emotions of the subconscious. For Artaud, theater does not merely refer to a staged performance before a passive audience––it is a practice, which “wakes us up…nerves and heart” and through which we experience “immediate v​iolent action” that “inspires us with the fiery magnetism of its images and acts upon us like a spiritual therapeutics whose touch can never be forgotten.”[xix] However, the reduction of​ le Théâtre de la Cruauté to some bloodthirsty horror movie cuts the intricacy and complexity of Artaud’s program, which is “only immensely elaborated but not anathema to some contradictions either.”[xx]

Artaud focused on the exploration of “inner forces of being” in his plays, arguing that “the return to primitivism in the theatre should arouse thorough exploration of our own deeper selves…a real stage play… releases our repressed subconscious.”[xxi] Many of the principles expounded by Artaud can clearly be seen in Schneemann’s ​Meat Joy​: ​an abject and surreal assemblage––evoking primitive subconscious desires. These concepts bear marked similarities to ​the Freudian concept of ‘Id’, which is the disorganized part of the personality structure that contains a human’s basic, instinctual drives​. Additionally, visceral aesthetics, manifested in blood and flesh, play a central role in both Schneemann’s performance and the writings on ​le Théâtre de la Cruauté.​ ​Kristeva also admired the work of Artaud, arguing that the best modern literature (Dostoevsky, Proust, Artaud, Céline, Kafka, etc.) “explores the place of the abject, a place where boundaries begin to break down, where we are confronted with an archaic space before such linguistic binaries as self/other or subject/object.”[xxii] Kristeva also associates the abject with ​jouissance:​ “One does not know it, one does not desire it, one joys in it [​on en jouit​]. Violently and painfully. A passion.”[xxiii] Seemingly paradoxical, this statement implies is that we are, despite any reticence, continually and repetitively drawn to the abject.[xxiv] With its orgiastic and sensual atmosphere, ​Meat Joy celebrates this fascination with morbidity. It confronts viewers with the idea that mortality is as intrinsic to the human condition as sexuality. And that these are inextricably linked. 

In ​Meat Joy​, Schneemann’s abject aesthetics stem from the work’s character as an erotic rite: excessive and indulgent, a celebration of flesh as material in the form of raw fish, chickens, sausages, wet paint, paper scraps, etc. The aesthetic response produced is a propulsion toward the ecstatic––shifting between “tenderness, wilderness, precision, abandon: qualities which could at any moment be sensual, comic, joyous, repellent.”[xxv] Schneemann’s choreography, with its focus on fusing and co-mingling the bodies and limbs, alludes to her views about the interchangeability of the genders. ​The female subject is not simply a “picture” in this scenario, but rather a “deeply constituted and never fully coherent subjectivity in the phenomenological sense,” dynamically articulated in relation to others––including the audience in 1964 as well as later observers of the recorded footage of the work––in a continual negotiation and exchange between desire and identification.[xxvi] Through the male/female dichotomy, Schneemann plays out the oscillatory exchange between subject and objectivity (between the masculine role as speaker and the feminine position of being spoken) by “‘speaking’ her ‘spokenness’” and integrating the image of her body as object, within the action of making itself. Schneemann explores the ambivalence of gendered identity ––the fluidity of the positions of male and female, subject and object, in post-Freudian culture.[xxvii]​ The ecstatic and erotic aspect of the relationship between the performers of either gender, creates a sensitized situation in which the participants practice relational spontaneity. The egalitarian atmosphere created is as much about female sexual liberation as it is about the general human condition: a desire to be seen and to sense, to touch and to be felt, to express and to be perceived. There is also a pronounced ​element of childishness in the work as the performers resemble children playing with dirty things. This creates a transgression of the boundary between serious, high art (ballet or dance) and regressive infantile play. ​The abject for Kristeva is also closely tied to religion and to art, which she sees as two ways of purifying the abject. ​Meat Joy exemplifies this link between the abject and the sacred––as it resembles an erotic rite as much as it would a trope of a pagan religious ceremony. With its deliberately ritualistic gestures and choreography, the performance resembles stereotypical ‘primitive’ imagery as it exists in the collective Judaeo-Christian imagination, as opposed to a specific existing culture. This is because these images transgress the rigid boundaries between the sacred and the profane, and challenge norms and careful categorizations that exist in Western society. 

The element of sensing plays a central role in both affect theory and Kristeva’s concept of abjection. These are exemplified in Schneemann’s work, which she has referred to as one of “extreme sensuality.”[xxviii] In ​Meat Joy this sensual dimension is made extremely literal: even watching the performance in the form of a staticky film montage, the performance evokes all of the senses––from the viscous appearance of the blood coloured paint, to the contorted figures dancing amidst a sea of various textures. One can almost smell the noxious odour of raw fish and poultry from the other side of the screen. ​Meat Joy attends to the representation of a being’s capacity to be affected––or touched––by its affective environment through the theatrical exaggeration of the celebration of flesh as material. In the work, Schneemann is interested in ​the sensuality of lived experience ​and the power of the naked body as an active image rather than as a pacified, immobilized, and historicized body. ​She has said about the work that “​it’s not about spontaneous expressivities; all participants experience a set of rigorous and intense exercises that sensitize [them] in terms of moving, shifting, handling bodies, and the taboos in regard to smells and being touched.”[xxix]

Meat Joy qualifies as a work of abject art due to its transgressive nature: bringing what is usually hidden or private into the public sphere and furthermore making it the center of attention. It also falls into the category of body art, due to its positioning of both living and dead bodies at the center of the performance. One of the major conceptual and theoretical issues highlighted by body art as performance is that of the ontology of the body as an art object. Body art is contingent on the uniting of the “subjective and objective self together as an integrated entity which is then presumably experienced directly by the audience.”[xxx] In Meat Joy​, Schneemann takes the centre stage as not only artist, but subject or muse. She performed herself in an erotically charged narrative of pleasure that “works against the grain of the fetishistic and scopophilic male gaze.”[xxxi] She thus flipped the traditional patriarchal dynamic of genius creator and female muse on its head, stating in an interview that: 

“[she was] the director but [she] also join[ed] the group. [She was] stained all over like everyone else…That’s the premise of the work…[she would] never have anyone enact anything that [she] wouldn’t do [her]self. There’s no separation between [the artist] and the performers. There’s no hierarchy except that it’s [her] vision, and the participants must want to be a part of it.”[xxxii]

The artist’s body and mind thus inhabit the roles of creator, participant, and object. Performing nude was an attempt to not only break down boundaries but also to establish the female body not only as object, but as subject. The performative body, as Schneemann argues, has a value that static depictions––characteristic of the male dominated sphere of modern art––cannot carry. With this emphasis on the bodily dimension, ​Meat Joy breaks down the distancing effect of traditionally modernist practices of representation. Parallel to this idea the body as an art-object is the concept of the abject body, as represented by the confrontation of dead and undead flesh. In the performance, Schneemann brings into contact the animal and the human in order to confront her audience with their undeniably real (if unpleasant) similarities. The work’s deep investment in ideas of transience and mortality can be seen in “its mingling of creaturely flesh, living and dead”––which effectively equates living, sensing human flesh with carrion.[xxxiii] This directly ties into Kristeva’s comments on the ‘primitive’ effort to separate ourselves from the animal: “by way of abjection, primitive societies have marked out a precise area of their culture in order to remove it from the threatening world of animals or animalism, which were imagined as representatives of sex and murder.”[xxxiv]

Meat Joy​, consisting of a layering of sensual and cerebral fascinations, exemplifies how the abject engenders an affective response through its arrangement as a particularly sensory and sensual experience, encompassing both the performers and the audience. ​The abject, like the affect, is found at the level of the embodiment. Kristeva describes the abject as eliciting involuntary, visceral responses. “We are, despite everything, continually and repetitively drawn to the abject (much as we are repeatedly drawn to trauma in Freud’s understanding of repetition compulsion).”[xxxv] To this day,​ Meat Joy r​emains an important historical counterpoint to later body-based works that engage with the juxtaposition of human and animal flesh, particularly funny and often disturbing performances that highlight the connection between the consumption of images of (often female) bodies, and food consumption.[xxxvi] The abject, evoking both loathing and fascination, frightens onlookers when it manifests itself as bodily excretion because it is not the body itself, yet still intrinsically linked to it. ​Meat Joy ​is a particularly clear demonstration of this reaction, engendering shock and revulsion, but also mirth and attraction, due to its transgression of the border between inside and outside, bringing the intimate and the private into the public sphere and presenting it as an art object. The performance points to annihilation, the absurd and meaninglessness: a massive and sudden emergence of uncanniness.


[i]Tate. ​“Abject Art.” ​Accessed November 20, 2017. ​www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/a.

[ii]Gregory J. Seigworth and Melissa Gregg, “An Inventory of Shimmers” in ​The Affect Theory Reader​ (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), ​2.

[iii]Silvan S Tomkins, and E. Virginia Demos. 1995. ​Exploring Affect : The Selected Writings of Silvan S. Tomkins​. Studies in Emotion and Social Interaction. Cambridge England: Cambridge University Press, 20.

[iv]Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Shame, Theatricality, and Queer Performativity: Henry James’s The Art of the Novel” in ​Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity​ (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), 62.

[v]Seigworth, “An Inventory of Shimmers,” 2.

[vi]Seigworth, “An Inventory of Shimmers,” 2.

[vii]Seigworth, “An Inventory of Shimmers,” 2.

[viii]Kristeva, Julia. ​Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection.​ Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia UP, 1982, 2.

[ix]Kristeva, ​Powers of Horror, ​4.

[x]Dino Felluga. “II: On the Abject.” ​Introduction to Psychoanalysis​, Purdue University, 2 July 2002, www.cla.purdue.edu/english/theory/psychoanalysis/kristevaabject.html.

[xi]Konstanze Kutzbach and Monika Mueller. ​The Abject of Desire : The Aestheticization of the Unaesthetic in Contemporary Literature and Culture.​ Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2007. ProQuest Ebrary. 9.

[xii]Eve Kosofsky​ ​Sedgwick. “Shame in the Cybernetic Fold: Reading Silvan Tomkins.” ​Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity.​ Duke University Press, 2006. ​109.

[xiii]Kristeva, ​Powers of Horror​, 6.

[xiv]Holland Cotter. “Shock of the Nude.” ​The New York Times,​ 1 Feb. 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/02/01/arts/design/carolee-schneemann-moma-ps1-art-performance.html.

[xv]“Carolee Schneemann: Meat Joy.” Institute of Modern Art. Accessed November 23, 2018. https://ima.org.au/carolee-schneemann-meat-joy/.

[xvi]“Meat Joy, 1964.” Caroleeschneemann.com.

[xvii]Paul Carey-Kent. “Carolee Schneemann.”​ Border Crossings,​ vol. 36, no. 4 (December 2017): 98.

[xviii]Carolee Schneemann and Bruce R McPherson. 1979. ​More Than Meat Joy : Complete Performance Works & Selected Writings.​ 1st ed. New Paltz, N.Y.: Documentext. 17.

[xix]Nathan Gorelick, “Life in Excess: Insurrection and Expenditure in Antonin Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty.” ​Discourse(​ 2011)​​vol.33, no. 2: 263.

[xx]Kutzbach, ​The abject of desire,​ 11.

[xxi]Kutzbach,​ Abject of Desire,​ 11.

[xxii]Dino Felluga, “II: On the Abject.” ​Introduction to Psychoanalysis​, Purdue University , 2 July 2002, www.cla.purdue.edu/english/theory/psychoanalysis/kristevaabject.html.

[xxiii]Kristeva, ​Powers of Horror,​ 9.

[xxiv]Felluga. ​Introduction to Psychoanalysis​.

[xxv]“Meat Joy, 1964.” Caroleeschneemann.com. Accessed November 15, 2018. http://www.caroleeschneemann.com/meatjoy3.html.

[xxvi]Amelia Jones, “‘Presence’ in absentia: Experiencing performance as documentation.​” Art Journal, vol. ​56,​ no. 4, (1997): 13.

[xxvii]Jones, “‘Presence in absentia”, 13.

[xxviii]Carolee Schneemann and Coleen Fitzgibbon. “Carolee Schneemann.” ​Bomb,​ vol. 132, no. 132, (2015): 136.

[xxix]Carolee ​​Schneemann and Coleen Fitzgibbon, “Carolee Schneemann,” 132. 29 Jones, “‘Presence in absentia”, 13.

[xxx]Jones, “‘Presence in absentia”, 13.

[xxxi]Carolee​ ​Schneemann and Coleen Fitzgibbon, “Carolee Schneemann,” 132.

[xxxii]Carolee​ ​Schneemann and Coleen Fitzgibbon, “Carolee Schneemann,” 134.

[xxxiii]Holland Cotter. “Shock of the Nude.” ​The New York Times,​ 1 Feb. 2018.

[xxxiv]Kristeva, ​Powers of Horror, ​12-13.

[xxxv]Kristeva, ​Powers of Horror,​ 29.

[xxxvi]Harriet Curtis. “Fifty Years Since Carolee Schneemann’s Meat Joy (1964).” ​Performance Research​, vol. 20, no. 2, (2015): ​119.

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