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When Hal Foster first published his acclaimed collection of essays The Return of the Real back in 1996, he was among the first to signal (or at the very least theorise) the advent of 'abject' art - an art of trauma ('traumatic realism') and infantile perversions, gross sexual imagery and bodily secretions.1 Thus the 'real' referred to in the title of this book was to be understood in the capital- R Lacanian sense first and foremost, as that which exists outside the realm of language and resists all attempts at symbolic mediation or assimilation. The real, in abject art's contentious case, was there to remind us of the crude, irreducible facts of 'real' embodiment amid the rising tide of 'derealisation'. Indeed, it is worth noting that The Return of the Real came out when the first waves of technooptimism engendered by the various digital revolutions of the early-to-mid-1990s were ebbing away, and a certain measure of anxiety (as well as sheer fatigue) was starting to accompany any casual mention of the salutary effects of 'virtual reality' and the Internet-driven 'dematerialisation' - a tactic pioneered in the Conceptual art of the late 1960s, incidentally - of the world economy. Looking at the work of Robert Gober, Mike Kelley, John Miller, Cindy Sherman and Kiki Smith, among others, Foster observed both the unruly return of real bodies and the essential irrepressibility of trauma, and rightly identified the critical impetus that informed much of the work in this vein, some of which had been shaped by the AIDS crisis of the 1980s. A decade and a half on from the publication of The
See Hal Foster, The Return of the Real: The Avant-Garde at the end of the Century, Cambridge, MA and London: The MIT Press, 1996.↑