Abject Masculinities: Animals, Empire, and Boyhood


In Julia Kristeva’s formation, the abject is a magnetic force that troubles the distance between subject and object. As she says, it “draws me toward the place where meaning collapses.” In this intimation of psychic collapse, the abject both represents the threat that meaning is breaking down and structures our reaction to such a possible breakdown. As Kristeva reminds us: “It is…not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order, what does not respect borders, positions, rules.” Thus, the corpse, excrement, human defilement, mutation, and animality all mark the abject; to Kristeva they are horrors that highlight the instability of a distinct human totality. I begin with Kristeva’s conception of the abject to access an epistemological tension that drives this paper; the psychic and ontological border constructed between human and animal and Justin Torres’s exploration of an alternative hybrid borderlands. It is not my intent, then, to put forth an analysis in which “the abject” is deviance or pathology, but rather an analytic that espouses difference beyond binary opposition.

“We wanted more.” Justin Torres’s We the Animals begins with the booming requests of a brotherly collective, the opening pages clamoring towards a crescendo of desires, becomings, and identifications. It is the collective “we” that cries out these claims, a three-headed fraternal being. By the end of Torres’s work, however, the seemingly conjoined triplets, “we”, have fragmented, leaving the narrator and youngest of the three alone. What do we make of this opening vignette in Torres’s story? How does Torres from the onset of his work toy with our ideals of identity, subjectivity, and individuality? And lastly, what are the violences Torres highlights that an abject perspective allows us to access?

We the Animals is the story of three brothers, the sons of a young white mother and Puerto Rican father, living in upstate New York. The boys are wild and unruly, our first introduction to them, their list of demands, the aforementioned wanting more. Torres here is purposeful in linking wildness, animality, and adolescent boyhood, evidenced by the epigraph of his novel, a quote from Plato’s text The Laws, which reads, “Now a boy is of all wild beasts the most difficult to manage. For by how much more he has the fountain of prudence not yet fitted up, he becomes crafty and keen, and the most insolent of wild beasts. On this account it is necessary to bind him, as it were, with many chains.” The resistance to boundaries of normative gender, sexuality, life, and “humanity” Torres depicts in his young narrator, depicts both the abject possibilities of childhood and the disciplinary mechanisms aimed at reinforcing those very same boundaries. By playing with the genre of the bildungsroman, or coming of age story, Torres highlights the teleological mechanisms of masculinity, while also subverting them.  

For instance, when the narrator in We the Animals climbs into a hole his father has dug, he imagines it as his grave, his naked body “half submerged in puddle muck.” The narrator becomes his own corpse, decomposing before our eyes, immersed in mud and earth. After coming to peace in this space between life and death, however, the narrator is ripped from this in-betweenness by the sound of his families’ laughter. “All four of them…swaying with laughter like trees…weeping with laughter, saying ‘Look at him, just look at him! Just look at that baby!’” The abject, then, is the undoing of the Self as well as, the possibility for something less static. A kind of being bound to death, whether through an actual amalgamation with the earth, the implied rupture of the self in animalistic schizophrenia, or the fatalistic imageries of the narrator’s queer childhood.

These variegated deployments are primarily perpetuated in Torres’s text through the trope of the hybrid, of which the narrator, a mixed race adolescent boy figures prominently. Animalia, moreover, in its identarian and metaphorical collisions with the normatively human, serves as a structure and performance that also maps gender onto the boy’s body. In a scene at a lake, when unable to swim, it is the narrator’s un-goldfish-ness that feminizes him, allows for his mother to clamor over him, pushing him deeper into the depths. Unlike his father, who “generally made it his business to learn everything that had to do with survival”, the narrator is affixed to his mother’s inabilities, in this instance the incapacity to swim. As this particular story demonstrates, bestial representations in the text are not monolithic. The performance of masculinity via the hybridized animal is as much an affective mode of labor as one of imagery and while the normative impulses to embody the masculine (become the goldfish, the survivor) are encouraged, they are simultaneously rebuked. For if to access the masculine through the animal provides a pathway to manhood, it similarly withholds that very possibility. Every attempt to become the goldfish or by extension the father, by the narrator is unattainable; he is in the language of We the Animals a mutt, a mongrel, a hybrid; an amalgamation “in between.” Thus, his overtly-sexualized adolescent body operates as symbol and warning, performing the rites of manhood while denied its benefits. This is as much a work, then, on the child, the becoming, or failed man, as it is on human-animal hybrid moments. It is my aim to document the wildness afforded male adolescence  


Death Drive, Jouissance, and Abject Masculinities

In his work No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, scholar Lee Edelman argues, “the Child has come to embody for us the telos of the social order and come to be seen as the one for whom that order is held in perpetual trust.” To Edelman, a politics of childhood, in which reproductive futurity is paramount, structures a social conditioning whereby queer personages are figured as harbingers of death. He elaborates, “queerness, by contrast, figures, outside and beyond its political symptoms, the place of the social order’s death drive: a place, to be sure, of abjection expressed in the stigma, sometimes fatal, that follows from reading that figure literally.” Within the text, too, we find this abject geography mapped onto the children’s bodies. In the “Trash Kites” chapter, Manny, Joel, and the narrator set off into the woods “finding freedom” where they eventually come across a large empty field where they build kites out of trash bags and string. It gets late and clearly the boys have considered sleeping outside, backpacks and sleeping bags in tow, when their father arrives and “didn’t wait to get home but beat Manny right there in the field…punched his face, punched his crotch. Manny went crazy, hooting and hollering “Murderer!” over and over.”

This scene is an important one, not only because of the location, the boys have ventured beyond the limits of acceptable space, the field several miles away, and time, nighttime, but also because of the violence enacted by the father. It is Manny, as the oldest and therefore most responsible, who is held accountable for their foray into the wilderness, who receives the beating. His father’s punishment stakes the boundaries of normative space and time, as it is not that the children have ventured into the wild that draws his anger, but the length of time they have done so and the necessity of his intervention as disciplinary apparatus. If, as Edelman claims, “the Child… marks the fetishistic fixation; of heteronormativity: an erotically charged investment in the rigid sameness of identity that is central to the compulsory narrative of reproductive futurism.” Then the actions of the father in Torres’s work in this scene can be read as a means to forcibly assure that identity. And while it is Manny who receives the beating, it is the narrator who becomes the ultimate perpetrator. “Murderer!’ he [Manny] screamed at our father, but no one was dead. He crawled over to where I stood, grabbed my sleeve, looked into my eyes. ‘Murderer!’ he said. ‘But who’s dead?’ ‘Me,’ he said. ‘Me, I’m dead! And my children.’” Manny crawls to the narrator freshly wounded from his encounter with their father and proclaims his own death and the father’s guilt. As much as this could be the potential overreaction of a child desperate to circumvent guilt, the prior actions of the father, and indeed this scene, seem to indicate the very real possibility of death. Moreover, Manny’s lamentation is of both his life and his reproductive life. His father, in punching both his face and his crotch, seeks to destroy the possibility of reproducing deviant action, repudiating any queer or abject endeavor before they fully adhere. The trench chapter, which comes just before this one, has seemingly alerted the family, and especially the parents, to the narrator’s odd behavior, something that must be stamped out, foreclosed. Perhaps this is also why Torres has Manny crawl to the narrator, an animalistic and subjugated locomotion, to declare his (the narrator’s) own death, as “the ‘pathetic’ quality he projectively locates in non-generative sexual enjoyment—enjoyment…that in the absence of futurity [is] empty, substitutive, pathological.”


Borders and Permeability

Thus far I have sought to document the “instances” of abjection in Justin Torres’s We the Animals that play with normative ideals of childhood and the boundaries of humanity. These occurrences, however, not only rely on a logic that performatively bounds human embodiment, but also on conceptions of interiority and exteriority, that when juxtaposed similarly threaten the breakdown of subjectivity. As Judith Butler argues in Gender Trouble, “What constitutes through division the ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ worlds of the subject is a border and boundary strenuously maintained for the purposes of social regulation and control.” To subvert or perforate that boundary, then, is tantamount to an act of anarchy. Thus, to continually revel in the abject, to experience jouissance in one’s confrontation with death for example as the narrator does, is to throw a whole set of social controls into disarray. This is why the boys are continually chastened by their parents, particularly the father, when approaching or infiltrating that borderlands.

There is, however, a problem as one might suggest, with this figuration, for if the penetration or perforation of inner and outer, especially when concerning the body, forms the basis of the abject, and if the abject represents an affront that requires correction, then what is to be made of the incredible permeability of all bodies? Each of the characters confronts the abject in Torres’s work, and yet it is the narrator who is ultimately punished. As Butler succinctly argues, however, “this sealing of its [the body’s] surfaces would constitute the seamless boundary of the subject; but this enclosure would invariably be exploded by precisely that excremental filth that it fears.” Butler’s assertion makes clear the impossibility of a vacuum-like embodiment, or identity for that matter, but she also highlights another crucial point; that everyone must confront the abject, that we all experience the perforations, penetrations, and excretions projected onto the narrator as vile, filthy, and animalistic, attributed to his hybrid racialization and sexualization. This brings me back to one of my original interrogatives that this paper aimed to address, the role of space/time specificity in performances of abject masculinity. But if the abject is a vile enemy we all must face, it should be a battle that one quickly escapes and enjoyment should not be the affect one is experiencing in such a confrontation.

And yet, there remains a certain stickiness to abjection, that in facing it, regardless of whether in jouissance or horror, it lingers. Kristeva warns us of the magnetic power of the abject, yet here I am more concerned with its staying power, specifically the haunting affects of abjection. The mother’s rebirth scene is a perfect example of this, though there are many others throughout the text. Immediately prior to her “birthing” the three brothers have decided to imitate the comedian Gallagher and repeatedly smash tomatoes all over the kitchen. When they run out, they move to their mother’s lotions, “so that when the mallet slammed down and forced out the white cream, it would get everywhere, the creases of our shut-tight eyes and the folds of our ears.” The “white cream”, seemingly ejaculate, coats their eyes and ears, another instance of the abject collisions between interiority and exteriority. Right after this their mother comes into the kitchen telling them, “You look like when you slid out of me.” It is at this point that she asks to also be reborn, to reenact her birth through and alongside her children.

Seemingly, Kristeva is right, we are drawn, as the mother is, towards the abject as a necessary confrontation. Birth, as the passage from the mother into individuality, if not immediately subjectivity, and from interiority to exteriority, the very literal reason for being is one, enormous abject event. As Kristeva argues, “We may call it a border; abjection is above all ambiguity. Because, while releasing a hold, it does not radically cut off the subject from what threatens it—on the contrary, abjection acknowledges it to be in perpetual danger.” Therefore is makes perfect sense that the referent the mother, the narrator, and Torres all continually return to is birth. If, “the abject marks the moment when we separated ourselves from the mother, when we began to recognize a boundary between ‘me’ and other, between ‘me’ and ‘(m)other.”’ Then, the constant reprisal of “birthing” in the text evinces both a yearning for the return to the mother as object and the danger in doing so. Birth and death highlight the dual work of abject: the threat and maintenance of subjectivity, constant reminders of the moments before and after personification when we were simply objects.

After the scene in the basement where the narrator and his brothers view the tape of the molestation (possibly incest), we see that the brothers are no longer the inseparable unit they once were. Their fragmentation becomes more evident in the following chapter, an unspoken amount of time later, when they boys are drinking and smoking in the woods. In this short period the two older brothers have changed immensely in the eyes of the narrator. Their collectivity breaks down not simply as a result of age, but from a recognition of otherness in queer/hybrid/abject sexuality. Speaking about their mother’s insistence that they hang out with him, Joel says, “I told her it ain’t like we’re all still playing in the same goddamn sandbox, woman.” They have distanced themselves from him, preempting the complete dissociation that is soon to come. The narrator at this point walks away, as “they called and called and cackled, and the trees echoed with their noise. Shit, let them bark. Maybe it was true. Maybe there was no other boy like me, anywhere.”

There is, then, the question of (arguably) the most important scene in the book, at the bus station. The narrator has just revealed a truth that has been cropping up periodically throughout, his desire to be utilized by older men. He has been for some time roaming around the nearby bus station, unable to act on the desires he so desperately wants to enact. We should view the videotape scene, then, not as a “light bulb” moment where the narrator discovers his repressed sexuality in the visual representation before him. Instead, this is merely one in a series of queer events that mark the narrators abject difference. It merely provides him with a language, a toolkit to explore a more explicit instantiation of the animalities that we have seen him embody throughout the text. We know, as he does, that these actions will ultimately be his unmaking, an undoing that will forever banish him from the realm of normativity. This is why we understand his exuberance in the climactic moments following his encounter with the man on the bus. He says, “I wanted to stand before a mirror and look and look at myself. I opened my mouth and stretched my voice over the buzz of passing cars. ‘He made me!’ I screamed. ‘I’m made!’” His making is a multiplicitous endeavor, however, in that he is made, as creation, as coercion, and as recognition. This making is the final act of abjection, the sexual act that is his undoing.


Biopolitics and Spatiality

There is indeed, then, a biopolitics of the domestic(s). Not only is the child managed by the mechanisms of state power, but as previously mentioned, the home/institution is where these possibilities are worked out. The child, then, is an apparatus of affective labor that drives multi-scalar affective biopolitical economies, the governance over which works on the macro population level as well as the micro level. In this register temporality is paramount. As Foucault argues in The History of Sexuality, “the sexualization of children was accomplished for the health of the race” seeking to annul the “epidemic menace” of unrestrained sexuality “that risked compromising not only the future health of adults but the future of the entire society and species.” It is this constant comprehension of the future that cathects the child and supposes the biopolitical possibilities of the abject, always contingent on time. For while the momentary lapse into wildness or the animal could have psychic benefits, as outlet for desire. A prolonged encounter with the abject renders the Self unfathomable and just as importantly, unmanageable and/or detrimental to the future health of the domestics. At the moments of heightened abjection, as perceived by his family, the narrator is brought back into the family/home, and after the ultimate transgression, his fantasies of queer making/unmaking he is permanently housed, caged as a zoo animal in a state mental institution.

For these reasons the narrator is at once imbued with stasis and transience. What is the child if not the quintessential necrocitizen, (im)mobilized for national purity, sanctity, and innocence, yet devoid of usable rights, frustratingly static. The boy’s body is a body that is free to envision life, yet shackled to its disciplinary constraints. This negation of the non-normative is effectively a death sentence, the narrator forever banished to a wild permanence of continually embodied animalia. But, we have seen this before. His mother pleads with the narrator to “stay six forever” to remain with her.  The forcefulness to contain (constrain) foreshadows his later imprisonment. After being caught, his diary exposed, the narrator sits in the tub being bathed, thinking “Hear the way she says it, the boys, how quickly and fully the son in the tub is excluded from that designation; how badly the boy wishes to be out there with his brothers, doing as he is told.” The narrator has not only been cleaved from the fraternal “we”, but made a spectacle before them, an object both of disdain and comedy. Similarly, recall earlier in Torres’s work when he is submerged in the grave his father has dug, which he believes is for him. The narrator is largely, and strangely at peace in his grave, “I felt a great distance from the house, from Ma on the couch and my brothers and Paps…I allowed myself to lose all bearings, and a long, long time passed before I wished my wish.” There are several things worth mentioning at this juncture, first is the recognition of difference from his family by the narrator. Here difference is calculated as distance, he is at peace not only outside the home, but in the murky depths, cloaked in the abject.



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