Social Abjection: Extract from The Introduction to Revolting Subjects


Verb: The action of revolt; apostasy; rebellion, insurrection;

Adjective: That [which] evokes revulsion; repulsive, disgusting.

Noun: That which is revolting; revoltingness.

(abridged from the Oxford English Dictionary, 2012)


Revolting is a powerful word. Within an emotional register being revolted is an expression of disgust, ‘to react or rise with repugnance against something. To turn away with disgust or loathing from something; to recoil from’ (Oxford English Dictionary, 2012). We can perceive this meaning of revolt in the visceral loathing of the xenophobic hate-speech against the Gypsy and Traveller community which the Dale Farm eviction provoked. Within a political register ‘revolt’ describes acts of protest and rebellion against authority, insurrections and uprisings:  ‘a movement or expression of vigorous dissent’ (Oxford English Dictionary, 2012).

Revolting Subjects proceeds from the intersections of these different meanings of revolt-ing in order to offer an account of ‘social abjection’ and revolt in contemporary Britain. In weaving together a series of political parables for our time, my concerns are to elaborate a rich account of neoliberal Britain from the bottom up, of the abject forms of inequality and injustice which neoliberalism effects and the resistance and revolt to which it gives rise. Focusing on citizenship, social class and migrant illegality, Revolting Subjects restages a series of recent revolts by disenfranchised populations: the protests of migrants in detention and facing deportation, the on-going resistance of Gypsies and Travellers to eviction from their land and homes, and the riots of young people across England in the summer of 2011. Using these revolts as a guide, the book maps the borders of the state from the inside out, suggesting we look anew at the state we are in.  Indeed, what drives Revolting Subjects is a critical and political concern with thinking about how we might contest both the state(s), states of being (human life) and states of belonging (political life) which characterise contemporary British life. At its heart, Revolting Subjects raises the question of how states are made and unmade – and how we might critically engage and intervene in this process of making and unmaking (Butler & Spivak, 2007). To respond to this question, I have drawn together a diverse body of theoretical scholarship, from feminist theory, sociology, media studies, critical theory, psychosocial studies and political philosophy. Revolting Subjects draws this theoretical work together through the conceptual paradigm of social abjection.

Combining a theoretical and empirical archive each of the chapters in Revolting Subjects explores the dual meanings of ‘abjection’ and ‘revolt’: the processes through which minoritised populations are imagined and configured as revolting and become subject to control, stigma and censure, and the practices through which individuals and groups resist, reconfigure and revolt against their abject subjectification. As a polemic this book also attempts to move us towards revolt – that is, to induce revulsion about the forms of disenfranchisment it describes, as well as to provoke the desire to do something about it. In encouraging revolt in this third sense my book attempts to provoke others to look anew and think differently – to prompt an imaginative engagement with dissent against the neoliberal consensus and `the politics of disposability’ which characterise contemporary Britain (Giroux, 2007).

Social Abjection

Over the course of the book I develop a rich account of social abjection as a theory of power, subjugation and resistance. Julia Kristeva’s (1982) seminal psychoanalytic account of abjection has had a considerable influence in arts and humanities disciplines for over two decades. However, there has been no sustained account abjection as a lived social process and abjection has received little sustained academic attention within the social sciences. Furthermore, as I detail in chapter one, whilst Kristeva’s account of abjection is compelling (at an explanatory level) what is absent from her and many subsequent developments of this concept is an account of what it means to be (made) abject, to be one who repeatedly finds themselves the object of the others violent objectifying disgust (see Tyler 2009). Revolting Subjects argues for a more thoroughly social and political account of abjection through a consideration of the consequences of ‘being abject’ within specific social and political locales. By drawing upon a substantial archive of empirical materials that include interview data, policy documents, political speeches, art works, news media reports and other popular cultural materials, I develop social abjection as a theoretical resource that enables us to consider of states of exclusion from multiple perspectives, including the perspective of those who are ‘obliged to inhabit the impossible edges of modernity’, those border zones within the state, in which the overwhelming imperative is not transgression, but survival (McClintock, 1995, p. 72). What the conceptual paradigm of social abjection reveals is that if state-power relies on the production of abject subjects to constitute itself and draw its borders, the state is also that which it abjects. The critical task, as Ranjana Khanna expresses it, ‘is to conceive of forms and categories of political life that will stop the creation of garbage-can populations’ (Khanna, 2009, p. 193). The case studies in Revolting Subjects take up this challenge, examining both the consequences of ‘being made abject’ and exploring how abjection is resisted and recuperated in forms of counter-political speech.

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