PRINT October 1992


Presidential Abjection

When George Bush threw up on Japanese Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa at a state dinner last winter, he achieved a milestone in the history of politics. It’s one that should be remembered, especially as the November election approaches: certainly no other leader in recorded history has managed not only to vomit in public but to do it all over his host. At least we can assume not, since none of the learned media mouthpieces has stepped forward to share any anecdotal precedents with us. Actually, there has been a curious silence on the topic of anyone, much less a world leader, ever vomiting on the host of a dinner party, which makes Bush’s achievement all the more singular.

Oh, sure, there were the early alarms, the headlines, the news commentaries, the stand-up routines, the images of a ghostly-looking Bush propped up behind an enormous floral centerpiece at once both cheery and funereal. And later there were the more controversial pictures of Bush pitching sideways in a dead faint, Barb clapping a napkin over his puss, and even, it seems, the Official Vomit being expelled all over the Presidential Suit. All in all, though, the thing got less play than Hillary Clinton’s rejection of home baking as a lifetime pursuit.

You could see why. By leading that 18-man delegation of American corporate executives—all hungry to foist the problems of mismanaged and bankrupt American industry onto the specter of a new yellow peril—across four Pacific nations, 16 time zones, and nearly 26,000 thousand miles in 12 short days, Bush had become the very definition of the Presidential Abject. Whereas a ribbon-cutting at a new Toys ’R’ Us, even one in Tokyo, would have been photo-op heaven for Ronald Reagan, all it did for Bush was recall the Wimp Factor. Even more perplexing and embarrassing was the demand that the Japanese not only buy more American-made cars and auto parts, but also consume a variety of other American products and services, including “legal assistance.” Apparently, American lawyers want in on the rising tide of political and business scandal in Japan, there being too little of that type of thing to keep them satiated at home.

When Bush hatched this harebrained tour he undoubtedly saw himself as the Supreme Father shepherding a gathering of Little Fathers, a sight to assuage the fears of Daddy-deprived Americans everywhere. What he hadn’t counted on was that some of the Little Fathers would publicly gripe and whine en route, with one of them—the ill-tempered, bad-mannered, big-mouthed Lee Iacocca—upstaging and challenging him every step of the way. It was Iacocca who administered the coup de grace to the pale and shaky president at a final meeting with Japanese auto-industry leaders: by posing in a pucker-faced sulk for a glorious, patriarchy-busting image, Iacocca took Bush down with him. In the process, he met Bush’s Presidential Abjection by becoming the embodiment of the Corporate Abject.

Abjection not only marked but defined this ill-starred cavalcade. Bush’s spell occurred during dinner, somewhere between the cold salmon with caviar and the passion fruit ice cream. “Food loathing,” writes Julia Kristeva in Powers of Horror, “is perhaps the most elementary and most archaic form of abjection.” But the gagging and nausea come in a process of separating from the parents, according to Kristeva, a process the unwary Bush found himself reenacting when the Little Fathers threatened to position him as child. Doubly distressing was the role of Miyazawa. The tetchy demeanor of Bush’s group was more like that of irate prep-schoolers protesting to a headmaster than a caucus of statesmen and corporate heads; yet what Bush & Co. were begging Miyazawa to provide were the essentials parents give to children. In their weakened position they thrust him into the role of Father, then threw a tantrum when he said no. “There is nothing like the abjection of self,” says Kristeva, “to show that all abjection is in fact recognition of the want on which any being, meaning, language, or desire is founded.”

Miyazawa, though, can’t rationally be taken as the Father. He is one of the reviled Japanese, the new Jews of the abject West. Writing of Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s anti-Semitism, Kristeva describes how the Jew becomes “an object of hatred and desire, of threat and agressivity, of envy and abomination. That object, the Jew, gives thought a focus where all contradictions are explained and satisfied.” Similarly, the “Jap” (the word used by one Bush-administration official) is the source of all our problems and wants, individually and as a society, now and tomorrow, the object that turns out all the demon objects bringing us down. (“The future is his,” Céline writes of the Jew, “he’s got the dough.”). “The Jew makes certain of being, of being everything and everywhere, totaling the world as a flawless unity under his absolute control,” says Kristeva. (“He’s still hassling the universe, heaven, God, the Stars, he wants everything, he wants more, he wants the Moon, he wants our bones,” hallucinates Céline.) The Japanese too want everything—our national sport (baseball), our architectural monuments (Rockefeller Center), our auto industry, computer industry, television industry, ad nauseam.

The Japanese who actually live here are a problem too. They work too hard, and they push their children to outshine ours in school, using the weight of family and custom that we seem to have misplaced, or that maybe we’ve had stolen from us. Thus Kristeva writes of Céline’s Jew, “He is heir, scion, enhanced by issue, by a kind of nobility that guarantees him the opportunity to amass traditions as well as goods of the family and social group. . . . Blessed by the father and by reliable families, he artfully manipulates the networks of social reality.” For a decade, of course, the most artful manipulators of the networks of American social reality have been Republican administrations and the business interests they have empowered.

One after the other those interests have been brought low, revealed not as the new gods of triumphant capitalism but as common criminals or incompetent wretches. In trying to avoid that reality, Bush wanted to follow Reagan’s example and create a substitute one. His trip to Japan constituted an effort to take the long-running spectacle of American citizens and politicians smashing Toyotas and Sonys and Toshibas, with great howls of impotent abjection, to a supremely illogical conclusion, for the Corporate Fathers he led there actually helped spawn the current domestic tragedy. Bush’s blame game gravely insulted the Japanese and humiliated the Americans. When he threw up, then, he was trying to expel his defilement at his own hands. His nausea was a rejection of what even he knew was, in Kristeva’s words, “the shame of compromise, of being in the middle of treachery.”

Jacqueline Rose writes that for Kristeva, “Céline’s writing is a symptom. It reveals horror as a matter of power—the power of fascination when we are confronted with the traces of our own psychic violence, the horror when that same violence calls on social institutions for legitimation, and receives it.” For Kristeva, Céline’s saving grace is the apocalyptic laughter he weaves through his “comedy of abjection.” The best that Bush can muster is apocalyptic retching.

Carol Squiers is a writer and curator who lives in New York. She is senior editor at American Photo, and a frequent contributor to Artforum.