Social Abjection, Disposable Lives and the Politics of Disgust

Social Abjection is a concept and theory which I first developed in my book Revolting Subjects (2013) to describe how power is constituted through forms of ‘inclusive exclusion’. I draw on the work of Georges Bataille, Franz Fanon, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Judith Butler, Anne Mclintock, Ranjana Khanna, Ann Laura Stoler and others in developing this account. Crucially, it revises Julia Kristeva’s psychoanalytic concept of abjection, in part through critical interrogation of the universality of her and others claims about the norms of psychic life (see also my 2009 essay ‘Against Abjection’ in the journal Feminist Theory which questions both Kristeva’s account and feminist use of her work).

In my revision of abjection, I situate Kristeva’s account historically– within the context of the European colonialism and imperialism- which are blindspots for much European critical and social theory (see Walter Mignola’s excellent work on this). My understanding of abjection is historical, social and political in orientation. I theorise abjection as a social force (a cultural political economy of disgust) which operates on multiple scales, as a practice, technique and mode of governmentality, which in effect binds together societies and states through “including forms of exclusion”.  

Social Abjection in effect ‘scales up’ previous understandings of abjection which centre primarily on individual subjects. My account of social abjection is intended as a theoretical resource which enables us to consider of states of exclusion from multiple perspectives, particularly from the perspective of those groups and populations who are subject to its violent and stigmatising effects.

Below is a long extract from chapter one of Revolting Subjects which outlines my account in detail. The rest of the chapters that follow this theoretical essay in Revolting Subjects, examine how social abjection operates in relation to particular modes of governmentality (such as citizenship and border control regimes) and impacts on particular groups (disabled people, disenfranchised urban youth, Gypsies and Traveller’s, Refugees). My more recent book on Stigma (2020) builds on and develop the theory of Social Abjection outlined here.

Social Abjection

Along the fault-lines of the world disorder piles of human waste are rising  (Bauman, 2002, p. 47).

In an extraordinary short essay titled ‘Abjection and Miserable Forms’ (Bataille [1934] 1993) Georges Bataille writing in the shadow of Hitler’s rise to power, developed the concept of abjection to explore what he perceived to be the pressing political issues of the 1930s: ‘the dehumanization of labour, class struggle, mass fanaticism’ (Lotringer 1993, p. 3).  Bataille argued that abjection is the imperative force of sovereignty, a founding exclusion which constitutes a part of the population as moral outcasts: ‘represented from the outside with disgust as the dregs of the people, populace and gutter’ (Bataille, 1993, p. 9).  Whether this marginality is an effect of an inability or unwillingness to be sucked into proletariat classes of factory workers and servants, or in the case of fascist (or colonial) systems of power a consequence of perceived racial inferiority, these surplus populations are separated from social life to the degree that they are ‘disinherited [from] the possibility of being human’ (Bataille, 1993, p. 11). The wretched are those whom are deemed fundamentally unequal, right-less, ‘the scum of the earth’ (Arendt, [1951] 1973, p. 267). These are classes of people who are paradoxically, classless. Populations omitted ‘from the processes of representation to the point where it can no longer think itself as a class’ (Krauss, 1996, p. 100).

Yet, while they are excluded Bataille argued that the waste populations created by sovereign power at the same time intrude at the centre of public life as objects of disgust –the “national abjects” I examine in this book. In this sense all prohibitions are inherently paradoxical for in order for a prohibition to function, it must at the same time be continually transgressed. For example, in order for a sexual practice to be declared obscene, experienced as “disgusting” and regulated accordingly, it must be seen to be practiced within the body politic. Social prohibitions are dependent upon the (re)intrusion of that object, practice, thing or person which has been constituted as abject, cast out and illegalised.  To summarise Bataille’s argument, the disciplinary forces of sovereignty, its processes of inclusion and exclusion, produce waste populations: an excess which threatens from within, but which the system cannot fully expel as it requires this surplus to both constitute the boundaries of the state and to legitimate the prevailing order of power. As Stallybrass and White similarly argue, ‘The low-Other is despised and denied at the level of political organisation and social being whilst it is instrumentally constitutive of the shared imaginary repertories of the dominant culture’ (Stallybrass & White, 1986, pp. 5-6). Waste populations are in this way included through their exclusion, and it is this paradoxical logic which the concept of abjection describes. As Bataille argues abjection describes ‘the inability to assure with sufficient force the imperative act of excluding abject things (which constitutes the foundations of collective existence)’ (Bataille, 1993, p. 10, my emphasis). Within this paradox lies the possibility of resistance to abjection. As Bataille writes: ‘[i]n the collective expression, the miserable, the conscience of affliction already veers from a purely negative direction and begins to pose itself as a threat’ (Bataille, 1993, p. 10). Or as Fanon puts it in The Wretched of the Earth ‘[h]owever hard it is kicked or stoned it continues to gnaw at the roots of the tree like a pack of rats’ (Fanon [1961], 2004, p. 81).


Abjection (Noun): The action or an act of casting down, humbling, or degrading; an act of abasement.That which is cast off or away, esp. as being vile or unworthy; refuse, scum, dregs.The state or condition of being cast down or brought low; humiliation, degradation; dispiritedness, despondency. (abridged from the Oxford English Dictionary, 2012)

At the heart of Revolting Subjects is the question of how states –states of being (human life) and states of belonging (political life) – are made and unmade – and how we might critically engage in this process of making and unmaking (Butler and Spivak, 2007). In this chapter I use Bataille’s essay as a point of departure with which to develop an account of “social abjection” which might assist us to think these two states– subjectivity and sovereignty —together. Why abjection? Abjection is a concept which precisely ‘hovers on the threshold of body and body politic’ (McClintock, 1995, p. 72). As Bataille’s account suggests, abjection describes the violent exclusionary forces of sovereign power: those forces that strip people of their human dignity and reproduce them as dehumanised waste, the disposable dregs and refuse of social life (Krauss, 1996).  However, as a dictionary definition reveals, abjection not only describes the action of casting out or down,  but the condition of one cast down, that is the condition of being abject.  In this sense abjection allows us to think about forms of violence and social exclusion on multiple scales and from multiple perspectives.

This chapter begins with an account of the politics of disgust; it then offers a summary and critique of Julia Kristeva’s exegesis of the concept of abjection. An unfaithful reader of Kristeva I am not concerned about remaining obedient to the orthodox psychoanalytic logic and conservative political agenda which informs the crafting of the concept of abjection in her writing. Rather I am interested in the clearing the ground for a richer understanding of abjection as a mode of governmentality- abjectionality- which might assist in our understandings of changing forms of subjectivisation and subjugation. To this end, I draw on feminist and postcolonial theory and in particular the work of Frantz Fanon, Judith Butler and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak in my account of social abjection. What drives my revision of the conceptual paradigm of abjection is a political concern with thinking about how we might exploit the paradox abjection describes to contest the state we are in, neoliberal states which are effecting new categories of ‘wasted humans’ (Bauman, 2004, p. 5).

The Politics of Disgust

Disgust is an urgent, guttural and aversive emotion, associated with sickening feelings of revulsion, loathing, or nausea. However, whilst it is experienced physically, in the gut, disgust is ‘saturated with socially stigmatizing meanings and values’ (Ngai, 2005, p. 11). In his scrupulously researched genealogy The Anatomy of Disgust (1997), William Miller reminds us that ‘[d]isgust and contempt motivate and sustain the low ranking of things, people, and actions deemed disgusting and contemptible (Miller, 1997, p. xiv). As William Cohen similarly argues:

People are denounced filthy when they are felt to be unassailably other, whether because perceived attributes of their identities repulse the onlooker or because physical aspects of their bodies (appearance, odor, decrepitude) do. Actions, behaviours, and ideas are filthy when they partake of the immoral, the inappropriate, the obscene, or the unaccountable—assessments that, whilst often experienced viscerally, are culturally constrained. All of these versions of filth have one thing in common: from the point of view of the one making the judgement, they serve to establish distinctions—“That is not me” (Cohen, 2005, p. x).

If disgust was once a neglected topic of intellectual enquiry, over the past 20 years a significant body of scholarship on disgust and other aversive emotions has emerged, much of which is concerned with detailing the social and political function of ‘ugly feelings’ (Ngai 2005, see also Ahmed, 2004; Meagher, 2003; Miller, 1997, Menninghaus, 2003; Nussbaum, 2004; Probyn, 2000). The first significant study of disgust was made much earlier, in the 1920s, by the Hungarian philosopher and political theorist Aurél Kolnai (1905-1973); although his essay ‘On Disgust’ (1929) was only published in an English translation in 2004 (in Korsmeyer & Smith, 2004). Kolnai’s Hegalian inspired phenomenology of disgust emphasised the intertwined physiological, emotional and moral qualities of disgust reactions and in doing prefigured much of the current theoretical preoccupation with aversive emotions. The considerable efforts made by Kolnai to both differentiate between “natural” (physiological) and  “moral” forms of disgust, and to systematize the differences between disgust and other aversive emotions, such as hatred, fear  and contempt, overemphasizes what are in experience tangled emotional and affective responses. Nevertheless, Kolnai makes two important observations. Firstly, he notes that disgust is a spatially aversive emotion. In being disgusted, Kolnai writes, ‘we perform a sort of “flight”’ from the ‘perceptual neighbourhood’ of the revolting thing or person and from possible ‘intimate contact and union with it’ (in Korsmeyer & Smith, 2004, p. 587).   If disgust is a reaction to the imagined over-proximity or intrusiveness of the disgusting thing, disgust creates (or attempts to create) boundaries and generate distance. Secondly, Kolnai introduces the concept of ‘moral disgust’, which he suggests emerges through an associative transference between physically and morally repulsive reactions. That is, in moral disgust, a physical experience of disgust slides into contempt and judgements of value. Yet because disgust is an emotion associated with involuntary bodily reaction, moral disgust is often experienced, or retroactively understood as a natural response: anybody would find x as repulsive as I do. As Korsmeyer and Smith argue, ‘So strong is the revulsion of disgust that the emotion itself can appear to justify moral condemnation of its object—inasmuch as the tendency of an object to arouse disgust may seem adequate grounds to revile it’ (Korsmeyer & Smith, 2004, p. 1).


In Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, one of the most influential treatises in the recent history of disgust scholarship, the anthropologist Mary Douglas argues that disgust reactions are always anchored to wider social beliefs and structures of taboo (Douglas, 1966). In her account, disgust functions to affirm the boundaries of the social body (the body politic) through the expulsion (actual or symbolic) of what are collectively agreed to be polluting objects, practices or persons. Thus an awareness of dirt, that is of something or someone being “dirty” reveals the social norms and rules in operation in a given social or cultural context. As Michelle Meagher (2003) suggests, what is important about Douglas’ argument is that she reveals that there is no “natural dirt” rather that which is experienced and/or imagined to be filthy (be that faeces on the skin, or a ‘foreigner’) corresponds with prevailing belief-systems, and involves community wide complicity. In this regard, disgust reactions are always contingent and relational and reveal less about the disgusted individual, or the thing deemed disgusting, than about the culture in which disgust is experienced and performed. As Meagher summarizes:

disgust is not a condition of an object, but an effect of a beholder’s intentional relationship with an object. […] objects are rendered disgusting or dirty through implicit social agreements. That is to say, rules of dirt and the regulation of bodily contact with dirt are not behaviours that can be reduced to “personal preoccupations of individuals with their own bodies” (Meagher, 2003, p. 32).

I want to emphasise here the social agreements in operation within disgust reactions. There is no disgust without an existing disgust-consensus. As Miller notes, an ‘avowal of disgust expects concurrence’ (Miller, 1997, p. 194). Sianne Ngai similarly describes the ways in which expressions of disgust often seek ‘to include or to draw others into its exclusion of its object, enabling a strange kind of sociability’ (Ngai 2005, p. 336). In sum, it is through repeated citation then that a disgust-consensus develops which in turn shapes perceptual fields. It a disgust-consensus that allows disgust to be operationalized in a given social and political context as a form of governance to sustain ‘the low ranking of things, people, and actions deemed disgusting and contemptible’ (Miller, 1997 p. xiv).  When we approach disgust as symptomatic  of wider social relations of power, we can begin to ascertain why disgust might be attributed to particular bodies.

The Aesthetics of Disgust

In The Cultural Politics of Emotion (2004) Ahmed adds a Foucauldian dimension to the scholarship on disgust by emphasising the performativity of aversive emotions. As she notes:

when thinking about how bodies become objects of disgust, we can see that disgust is crucial to power relations. […] The relation between disgust and power is evident when we consider the spatiality of disgust relations. […] disgust at ‘that which is below’ functions to maintain the power relations between above and below, through which 'aboveness' and 'belowness' become properties of particular bodies, objects and spaces’ (Ahmed, 2004, p. 88. my emphasis).

Ahmed describes how the attribution of disgust, constitutes the disgusting object in the following way: a subject feels something to be disgusting (a reception that relies on a history previous to the encounter), expels (either literally or metaphorically) that thing, and through expelling it, finds it to be disgusting.  In turn, this disgusted response becomes ‘the truth’ of the object, thing or person deemed revolting (Ahmed, 2004, p. 87).  In short, through the act of being disgusted the subject constitutes the disgusting object. Ahmed argues that this process always operates discursively, and that images and signs of disgust become habituated through repetition. Disgust does not come from nowhere, but relies upon ‘histories of articulation’ which bind signs of disgust to specific objects and bodies (Ahmed, 2004, p. 92). As she writes ‘the attribution of quality to substance […] relies on the figurability of disgust’ (Ahmed, 2004 p. 90, my emphasis).

Throughout this book I consider the figuration and mediation of those deemed abject. For as Ngai argues that if want to understand the central role of aversive emotions, in for example, processes of racialisation, we need to think ‘the aesthetic and the political together’ (Ngai, 2002, p. 3). This attention to revolting aesthetics resonates with Ranciére’s argument that the political is always aesthetic, in the sense that regimes of representation and perception delimit ‘the visible and invisible’ and ‘speech and noise’ in ways which shape ‘the place and the stakes of politics as a form of experience’ (Rancière, 2004, p. 13). If we map the aesthetics of aversive emotions in any given context, we can begin to apprehend the ways in which disgust is provoked, roused and incited in the service of prevailing social and political classificatory practices and regimes of power. Indeed, the ways in which aversive emotions come to shape perceptual fields and the stigmatizing effects of disgust directed towards persons deemed “revolting” is a central concern of the account of social abjection I develop.

The Neoliberalism of Disgust

As Martha Nussbaum has argued, disgust has been used throughout history ‘as a powerful weapon in social efforts to exclude certain groups and persons’ (Nussbaum, 2004, p. 107). All political ideologies but perhaps particularly those preoccupied with social hygiene, such as racism, xenophobia, eugenics, homophobia and misogyny are mediated through revolting aesthetics.  We might note in this regard what Ngai describes as ‘the spectacular appropriation of disgust by the political right throughout history, as a means of reinforcing the boundaries between self and “contaminating” others’ (Ngai, 2005, p. 338-9).

In The Politics of Disgust: The Public Identity of the Welfare Queen (2004), Anne-Marie Hancock explores incitements of disgust for African-American single mother welfare recipients in the USA. She details the ways in which an accumulation of longer histories of negative representations of poor black populations coalesce in the figure of the “Welfare Queen”. Through close analysis of news journalism, political speeches, policy documents and interviews with mothers, she suggests that this figure operates as what she terms a “public identity” which knots together stigmatising discourses of hyperfertility, laziness and ethnic difference (Hancock, 2004). The figure of the Welfare Queen generates a consensus apparatus which legitimates negative public sentiments about single mothers in receipt of state-support and authorises punitive economic and social policies. Similarly Karen Soldatic and Helen Meekosha explore ‘the role of disgust in mediating disabled women’s experience of workfare in the Australian state’ (Soldatic & Meekosha, forthcoming). They argue that neoliberal welfare reform is legitimated through the figuration of disabled women as revolting subjects, ‘slothful, lazy and consequently undeserving of public welfare’ (Soldatic and Meekosha, forthcoming). It is in these ways that longer histories of aversive emotions against minority subjects are instrumentalised as technologies for garnering public consent for the shift from protective liberal forms of welfare to disciplinary workfare regimes (see chapter six).

Within the scholarship on disgust, there is an emphasis on the perspective and experience of the one disgusted, and the ensuing effects of this disgust, in, for example enabling the constitution of an identity through dis-identification with another: The “that is not me” function of aversive emotions described by Cohen  (Cohen, 2005, x). Whilst I will also engage this perspective I want develop a more inter-relational understanding of aversion and stigma in this book through a focus on those who repeatedly find themselves (made into) the object of stigma. Disgust is not just enacted by subjects and groups in processes of othering, distinction-making, distancing and boundary formation, but is experienced and lived by those constituted as disgusting in their experiences of displacement and abandon. For example, Hancock argues that those interpellated by the figure of the Welfare Queen, ‘internalise the social judgements made of their stigmatisation as shame, self-loathing, self-disgust, self-contempt and self-hatred’ (Miller, 1997, 2002). Similarly Soldatic and Meekosha (forthcoming) describe how this heightened stigmatization impacts within the everyday lives of disabled women. Reconfigured in the public imaginary from “victims” to parasitical welfare scroungers, these women struggle to find ways to defend themselves against the aversive reactions of others in their everyday interactions with both official state actors and other citizens.

When a person and their bodily appearance is designated as disgusting, a ‘magnet of fascination and repulsion’, they are subject to forms of dehumanizing violence which are lived and which can immobilising in its effects  (Kristeva, 1995, p. 118). Indeed one of the major consequences of the fabrication of national abjects such as “the welfare scrounger” in public culture is that this symbolic violence curtails the representational agency of those interpellated by these figures. Symbolic violence is transformed into forms of material violence which are embodied and lived. For example, in February 2012, several disability charities in the UK detailed how a governmental rhetoric of welfare fraud was being used to legitimate cuts in disability benefits. This discourse was inflamed by news media stories about “fake” disability claimants. The consequence of this was an immediate and massive increase in disability hate speech on the streets of Britain. As Peter Walker writes in The Guardian:

charities say they are now regularly contacted by people who have been taunted on the street about supposedly faking their disability and are concerned the climate of suspicion could spill over into violence or other hate crimes. [… ] Some disabled people say the climate is so hostile they avoid going out, or avoid using facilities such as designated parking bays if they "don't look disabled" (Walker, 2012).

One man related to Walker how when he walks the streets on his crutches he now receives shouts of: ‘We’re going to report you to the DWP [Department of Work and Pensions] […] ‘When there’s a bad article in the press, the next day you think, “Do I really need to go out of the house?” We’re being forced back into the attic, locked away from society’ (in Walker, 2012).  This story about the impact of negative public figurations of disabled bodies as leechlike bodies within the state illustrates the everyday effects of the deployment of the politics of aversive emotions as a form of neoliberal governmentality.

The Psychoanalytics of Disgust

In Powers of Horror (1982) Kristeva developed an account of abjection to explore the psychic origins, functions and mechanisms of revulsion, aversion and disgust.  The abject is a concept which describes all that is repulsive and fascinating about bodies and in particular those aspects of bodily experience which unsettle bodily integrity: death, decay, fluids, orifices, sex, defecation, vomiting, illness, menstruation, pregnancy and childbirth. Abjection also describes experiences of bodily affect, moments of physical revulsion that result in ‘a discharge, a convulsion, a crying out’ (Kristeva, 1982, p 1).  It expresses the subject’s response to that stuff which threatens to overwhelm their body-border, our attempts to turn or look away, to stopper the ‘flow, discharge, haemorrhage’ which threatens to engulf us’ (Kristeva, 1982, p. 5). Kristeva suggests that practices and experiences of abjection have a cathartic function for the subject, operating as forms of purging which give expression to a continual need to secure a narcissistic hygienic fantasy of a clean, whole and proper self through the performative enactment of self/other and self/object distinctions. ‘At the crossroads of phobia, obsession, and perversion’ abjection describes those processes and practices which re-establish subjective integrity in response to a real or imagined transgression (Kristeva, 1982, p. 45). As I noted above, in relation to Kolnai’s work on disgust, abjection is spatializing, in that the subject whom abjects attempts to generate a space, a distance, a distinction, a border, between themselves and the polluting object, thing or person. Abjection describes the on-going processes of bordering that make and unmake both the psychological and material boundaries of the subject. As Kristeva notes, abjection is ‘the border of my condition as a living being’ (Kristeva, 1982, p. 3).

Kristeva suggests that it is through abjection that the border ‘becomes an object’ which the subject can manage (Kristeva, 1982, p. 4). The matter transformed into an object through abjection always functions as a substitute threat, rather than being a menace in and of itself (Ahmed, 2004). That is, the border objects which emerge through abjection enables fear to be named and known, but this naming is always a temporary crystallisation (sublimation), of a deeper archaic fear (of death, dissolution). As Kristeva states ‘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’ (Kristeva, 1982, p. 11). The multiple ‘bad objects’ constituted through abjection are thus always substitutes, detested scapegoats, hence Kristeva’s description of the abject as ‘a security blanket’ (Kristeva, 1982, p. 136-7).

Whilst the aversive affects experienced by the subject when faced with an abject appear to emanate from the revolting qualities of the thing which provoked the response however, in actuality the subject is always already the source of their own abjection. As Kristeva notes, abjection is ‘an extremely strong feeling which is at once somatic and symbolic, and which is above all a revolt of the person against an external menace from which one wants to keep oneself at a distance, but of which one has the impression that it is not only an external menace but that it may menace us from the inside’ (in Meagher, 2003, p. 33). In her attempt to delineate this strange looping-back temporality of abjection, Kristeva states ‘I expel myself, I spit myself out, I abject myself within the same motion through which “I” claim to establish myself’ (Kristeva, 1982, p. 3). Subjectivity is, in this account, always in revolt against itself.

Abjection as a Memory Hole

Kristeva’s theory of abjection was developed out of her earlier work on infant subject-formation and the maternal (see chapter four). Kristeva’s argues that the infant, in securing a separate sense of their body-self, becomes estranged from (abjects) their original ‘maternal home’ and is hence-forth always “out of place”, permanently exiled. I will return to the enduring problems with the sexual politics and universal applicability of this psychoanalytic origin story in chapter four (see also Tyler 2010).  Here it is suffice to note that in Kristeva’s narrative, all human desires, insecurities, fears and creativity, stem from this primary exile from the m/other land, which is incorporated within the infant at the moment of its ‘birth’ as a conscious being, as an internal and unassailable loss of place. In crossing the originary border of the mother’s body this exilic subject is henceforth compelled to tirelessly enact abjection, through the classification and demarcation of his/her world. What unfolds from this pre-history is a decidedly negative theory of subjectivity which explains the desires and projects of human beings in terms of a primal, haunting insecurity. In her later work Kristeva proceeds to theorize all acts of bordering, whether at the level of individuals, communities, or at the geo-political scale of nation-building, imperialism and international relations, as symptomatic of the psychic partitioning induced by the abjection of the mother: A matricidal act which makes us always already ‘strangers to ourselves’ (Kristeva, 1991).

The problems with Kristeva’s application of her pre-historical theory of abjection to the pressing social and political problems of our own time are made manifest in her account of xenophobia. There has been extensive critical engagement with Kristeva’s writing on strangers (see for example (Chanter & Ziarek, 2005 and Tyler 2009) and it isn’t necessary here to cover this ground in detail so I will condense the major limitations of her thesis of abjection.

In Strangers to Ourselves (1991) and Nations without Nationalism (1993), Kristeva’s stated intention is to develop an ethics of ‘strangeness’ that might counter the rise of xenophobia in contemporary Europe. In Strangers to Ourselves she argues that whilst citizenship offers a legal framework for belonging to a state, it doesn’t address or resolve the deep-seated, ‘prickly passions aroused by the intrusion of the ‘other’ in the homogeneity of […] a group”  (Kristeva, 1991, p. 41). This is because, in Kristeva’s terms, the foreigner is an uncanny figure who haunts and inhabits not only inter-subjective relations but intra-subjective relations—the foreigner is a substitute –a scapegoat– for the abject maternal. In other words, xenophobia is a form of abjection which constitutes the foreigner as a “border abject” which the citizen-subject — and the community or state –can manage (through hate). The aversive emotions experienced in xenophobic reactions thus signify for Kristeva ‘the psychological difficulty we have of living as an “other” and with others’ and ‘the limits of nation-states and of the national political conscience’ (Kristeva, 1991, p. 103). Xenophobia thus understood is a psycho-symptomatic response to a perceived threat to both subjective integrity and to the body politic.

Kristeva argues that the solution to the abjectifiying effects of xenophobic nationalism is psychoanalysis. Her aim, as Kristeva explains it, is to develop from psychoanalysis an ethics which enables us ‘recognize ourselves as strange in order better to appreciate the foreigners outside us instead of striving to bend them to the norms of our own repression’ (Kristeva, 1993a, p. 29). In short, Kristeva’s argument that psychoanalysis might effect a radically cosmopolitan form of pan-European subjectivity relies on the primacy of an unchanging psychological origin story in which the abjection of the maternal (matricide) is the root of all violence and hatreds. Psychoanalysis thus imagined as a blueprint for an ethical meta-system, which might be unfolded at the collective level of the state to alleviate the ‘defensive hatreds of nationalism’ (Kristeva, 1993a, p. 4). Hatreds which, Kristeva argues, are symptoms of a deeper ‘national depression’ (see Kristeva, 2004: 23). Kristeva couches her psychoanalytic ‘cure’ for ‘national depression’ and the extremist forms of nationalism it effects within a discourse of liberal citizenship: As she notes, the ‘recognition of otherness is a right and a duty for everyone’ and again, ‘it is reasonable to ask foreigners to recognize and respect the strangeness of those who welcome them’ (Kristeva, 1993a, p. 31).  Politically speaking for Kristeva the “solution” to the violence of nationalism involves the forging of more cosmopolitan, liberal and ‘enlightened’ European citizen-subjects.  For this to happen, she suggests, we need to strengthen the citizen’s right to privacy. For if we could articulate and come to terms with our aversive emotions within private spaces (analysis, personal relationships, the family), they might not spill out in public domains of social life. It is in this way that she suggests, that psychoanalysis might form the basis for more tolerant forms of national belonging.   However, as the political movements of indentured peoples, indigenous people, women, and queers and the disabled have taught us, democracy will not be deepened or enriched by shifting or containing historical and current social and political antagonisms in the private realm.  Indeed, it is the reproduction public/private distinctions that are often precisely what needs to be contested in the name of equality (see chapter four).

Arguably, the strength of Kristeva’s thesis resides in her primary claim that “we are strangers to ourselves”— an emancipatory assertion for the fundamental equality of all human beings. However, the promise of this claim, is immediately undone as Kristeva proceeds to deploy it as a means of disentangling xenophobic expressions of nationalism (bad nationalism) and liberal ideals of the French Republic (good nationalism). This becomes clear in Strangers to Ourselves when she writes that ‘the interior impact of immigration […] often makes it feel as though it had to give up traditional values, including the values of freedom and culture that were obtained at the cost of long and painful struggles (`why accept the Muslim scarf’ (Kristeva, 1993a, p. 36). A few pages later she adds ‘[i]t is possible that the “abstract” advantages of French universalism may prove to be superior to the “concrete” benefits of a Muslim scarf’ (Kristeva, 1993a, p, 47). Elsewhere she has argued that the wearing of hijab by French schoolgirls creates is ‘a psychic catastrophe’ (Wajid, 2006). What Kristeva divulges in these kinds of remarks is that “the stranger” is a body that is constituted as foreign (and abject) by the bodies of citizens who compromise the normative body politic of the French State.  As Ahmed (2003) suggests, the political promise of Kristeva’s radical proposition of the universality of strangeness is negated by her invocation of the fetishized figure of the veiled woman, a post-colonial citizen-subject who is perceived and experienced as a stranger despite her legal entitlement to equality. Kristeva fetishizes this figure and produces her as a national abject who threatens the body politic of the French Republic from within and as such must be subjugated.   In December 2003, Kristeva was one of a group of 60 French female public figures, ranging from feminist activists, intellectuals and celebrities, who were signatories to a petition, published in the French edition of the women’s magazine Elle, which called for a law against the wearing of the hijab in public places (Hare & Weinstein, 2009). In 2010 the proposal for banning the wearing of head and face concealing veils by girls and women in public places became law. It isn’t clear if Kristeva agrees with the punishments now meted out to those women who flout this ban: a fine and an obligatory attendance on a “citizenship training course”.

Kristeva’s theory of abjection relies on an absolute opposition between the universality of the (psychoanalytic) subject and the particularity of the body politic in question (here an idealised French Republic).  However, this opposition is an unsustainable one, as ‘every individual has to be somehow particularised, has to dwell in a particular lifeworld’ (Žižek, 2008, p. 120). The imagined universality of the subject is always a “fake universality” because in actuality the psychic life of the individual is shaped by the particularity of prevailing norms, and existing social divisions, conflicts and relations of power. What is clear is that the universalism of Espirt de Corps which Kristeva appeals to is not the radical form of universalism invoked by Alain Badiou, in his maxim ‘there is only one world’ (2008), but is the historically contingent universalism of the neo-colonial French Republic: ‘a false ideological universality which masks and legitimises the concrete politics of Western imperialism and domination, military interventions, and neocolonialism’ (Žižek, 2008, p. 149). In actuality, xenophobic has its roots in the pre-history of the subject but is an effect both of history and in the case of France its colonial past, and the reworking of this history in the neoliberal racial state.  Indeed, it is not psychoanalysis which is required to alleviate the ‘defensive hatreds of nationalism’ but rather a history lesson (Kristeva, 1993, p. 4). Abjection functions within Kristeva’s writing as a “memory hole” which enables the colonial history of the French Republic to be veiled over.  Functioning as an alibi, abjection in her account enacts an epistemic violence which is complicitous with the Republic’s ‘collective amnesia’ about the violence of its imperial past (Stoler, 2011, p. 122).

Ann Laura Stoler (2011) describes the process by which the French state disavows colonial violence as ‘aphasia’ by which she means a form of ‘active forgetting’ which works to dismember historical memories and lived experiences of racialised violence within the body politic. As she writes ` [l]ike the noun ignorance, which shares its etymology with the verb to ignore, forgetting is not a passive condition. To forget, like to ignore, is an active verb, an act from which one turns away. It is an achieved state’ (Stoler 2011, p. 141).  Stoler concludes that:

[Go]vernance in France rests on the logos and pathos of a racial state honed in a history of empire. It is a state whose strategies of separation and exclusion structure more than state institutions. Racial distinctions permeate the unspoken rules and “choices” of residence, the charged debates on secularism, the sensory valuations that distribute moral disgust, the explanations of sexual violence, and, not least, who can walk with ease on what streets and in which quarters. But racialized regimes of truth have been refracted through a more fundamental and durable epistemic space. They shape what issues are positioned at the fulcrum of intellectual inquiry and what counts as a recognizable frame of reference in scholarly and public debate (Stoler, 2011, p. 129).

Abjection is for Kristeva a theoretical means of ‘actively forgetting’ the colonial histories which violently resurface in contemporary expressions of xenophobia against both black citizens and newly arrived migrants. In Kristeva’s writing on nationalism the abject is akin to a “conceptual colony” – an epistemological device through which to enclose, manage and legitimate nationalist political vocabularies of French Republicanism–even whilst the purported equality of the Republic is struggled over within the contemporary revolts of ethnic minorities against state racism. So whilst Kristeva’s stated aim in her writing on foreigners is to develop an alternative politics of cosmopolitan hospitality what she actually provides is a psychological alibi for “hygienic” forms of nationalism. Psychoanalysis, a decidedly Euro-centric theory of subjectivity which emerged in the larger cultural context of colonial expansion and imperial crisis, is put into the service of French Nationalism (Fuss, 1994).

What I want to do in what follows is to employ Kristeva’s account of abjection against itself. That is I want to develop an historically grounded account of social abjection which precisely enables for a theoretical and empirical focus on those very issues and topics (xenophobia, racism, nationalism) which Kristeva’s seemingly engages with but in actuality mystifies. I am in other words, twisting and redefining Kristeva’s conceptual paradigm for distinctly political and critical purposes. At the same time, what I want to retain from her account is the multiple perspective which working with abjection enables—in allowing us to think practices of subject and state-formation together.

Extreme Eurocentrism

The publication of the English translation of Powers of Horror in 1982 gave rise to a huge number of theoretical and political applications of Kristeva’s idiom in the English-speaking world. Many writers and artists claimed abjection as a conceptual category of resistance in their critical and political efforts to destabilise a growing conservative political hegemony in the global North (epitomised in the US by the Bush presidency). The Abject, America (1992) is exemplary of the rise of ‘Abject Studies’ in US academia: an edited collection of critical essays and visual pieces organised around the theme of ‘affirmative abjection’. Anomalously however within this collection there is a transcript of an interview with post-colonial theorist Spivak titled ‘Extreme Eurocentrism’.  We are not told when or how this interview, took place, whether the interviewer (Edward Ball) and the interviewee met face-to-face, or to what extent the interview has been subsequently edited. What we can ascertain from what has been transcribed is that the encounter between Spivak and Ball on the topic of abjection is fraught with tension and on Spivak’s part, considerable resistance.

Throughout the interview, Spivak refuses Ball’s attempts to produce abjection as an affirmative concept or a transgressive theory. She insists that the concept of abjection was forged within and is fundamentally committed to ‘one historical narrative’, namely an imperialist, Euro-centric historical world-view  (Spivak, 1992, p. 55).  As she notes, ‘What are the cultural politics of application of the diagnostic taxonomy of the abject? […] The diagnostic taxonomy won’t do. I might even say, half in jest, that we have no access to the abject’  (Spivak, 1992, p. 55).  In response Ball asks, ‘We? Who is this “we”?, Spivak replies, ‘Cultural others. […] we don’t belong in this story-lining of the present’ (Spivak 1992: 55). Ball is insistent that abjection has a universal application pleading with Spivak to ‘choose one thing […] and test whether it fits with the notion of the abject’ (Ball in Spivak, 1992, p. 55).   Spivak’s response is, ‘Why should we? That’s my question. […] In what interest do we want to describe it as such? To control it with this diagnosis?’ (Spivak, 1992, p. 57). Somewhat defeated Ball asks, ‘Is the abject so culture-bound that it cannot at all be translated?’ To which Spivak responds, ‘I didn’t say the abject was culture-bound. What I said was that the argument about the abject and its usefulness is committed to a single historical narrative, the dominant historical narrative’ (Spivak, 1992, p. 59). Spivak’s resistance is incisive; she doesn’t reject abjection as an explanatory concept, but rather insists on understanding it as a European theory which reproduces the imperial axis of European subjectivity. As she notes ‘why would I want to use as tools for intelligibility a kind of modernist vocabulary of free-form psychoanalysis to give some acceptability […] to the idea of cultural difference when that itself is a kind of decontextualized alibi?’ (Spivak, 1992, p. 56). In Spivak’s response, the compulsive fascination with and hatred for the ‘foreign’ which Kristeva describes, is folded back out of the memory hole of psychoanalytic origin stories and forced into open confrontation with the violent history of European imperialism which shapes the neo-colonial  present tense.

Hygienic Governmentality

Lauren Berlant, (citing Walter Benjamin) argues that ‘hygienic governmentality’ are those modes of state-formation which operate through ‘asserting that an abject population threatens the common good and must be rigorously governed and monitored by all sectors of society’ (Berlant, 1997, p. 175).[iv] As she notes, ‘especially horrifying to Benjamin are the ways the ruling bloc solicits mass support for such “governing”: by using abjected populations as exemplary of all obstacles to national life; by wielding images and narratives of a threatened “good life” (Berlant, 1997, p. 175). This hygienic governmentality is currently exemplified by the extreme and fetishisitic vilification of migrant (and particularly Muslim) populations in Europe, and the accompanying inducement of aversive affects such as revulsion, disgust and fear towards migrant populations. However, this governance through abjection, it is not restricted to migrant populations, but is operational in a range of practices of social stigmatisation and social cleansing. In France in 2005, hygienic governmentality was spectacularly inscribed in the political rhetoric of then Minister of the Interior, Nicholas Sarkozy, who fuelled social unrest in Paris when he referred to young citizens in the banlieus (the marginal degraded urban zones of the edges of Paris where many poor migrants and French citizens of North African descent reside) as “racaille”, a pejorative term translating as rabble, scum, riff-raff, waste. Sarkozy promised to cleanse them from the streets with a ‘karcher’:  a high-pressure cleaning system which blasts away the outer skin of encrusted pollution from pavements and buildings (see chapter seven for similar forms of “symbolic street cleaning” in the aftermath of the August 2011 riots in England).

In his account of nationalism in contemporary France, Badiou argues that the national abjects who are bodied forth in right-wing public rhetoric as ‘ the agents of a serious moral crisis’ are ideological figures designed to uphold and to consolidate nation ideals of selfhood (Badiou, 2008, p. 81). For Badiou this ‘fear of foreigners, of workers, of the people, of youngsters from the Banlieu, Muslims, black Africans  […] marks the subjective situation of dominant and privileged people who sense that their privileges are conditional and under threat and that their domination is perhaps only provisional and already shaky’ (Badiou, 2008, pp. 8-9). In Badiou’s account the fear of the foreigner is also, as the theory of abjection suggests, a subjective fear which emanates from within the subject themselves. However, for Badiou this fear is not a psychological truth which has its origins in the pre-history of the subject, but is incited by the political elites as a means of securing political power. What this induced fear unleashes is material forms of discriminatory violence. That is forms of social abjection operationalized by the state with public consent. For those who are subject to social abjection, particularly young Muslim and black youths in the banlieues, the consequences are what Badiou describes as ‘daily humiliation’ and dehumanisation  (Badiou, 2006, p. 111)—see chapter six.

The Politics of the Racaille

Noting the resurgence of historical accounts of French colonialism in the wake of the headscarf ban in 2004 and race riots in the banlieues in 2005, Stoler argues that aphasic cycles of ‘forgetting’ and ‘rediscovering’ colonialism characterise contemporary French intellectual and political life. In 2005 a French activist movement Mouvement des Indigènes de la République[v] [MIR] was founded by activists from the banlieues.  The MIR offers a distinctly political retort to the asphasia described by Stoler, arguing that the banlieues are ‘zones without rights, inhabited by an “indigenized” population subject to “colonial mechanisms” of control’  (Stoler, 2011, p. 129). A situation which Homi Bhabha describes in respect of those French citizens whose ancestors originated from the former colonies, as the `anomalous and ambivalent situation of universality-with-racism, and formal citizenship-without-equality’ (Bhabha in Fanon, 2004 p.  xxiv). MIR’s aim is to develop a political vocabulary with which to articulate the ‘organized expression of the rage of immigrant populations’ (Khaiari in Kipfer, p. 12). As Houria Bouteldja, a spokesperson for the MIR writes:

When they refuse to accept us as French citizens, they deny us equality. We need to name this reality: we cannot be French, so we are native. We are second-class citizens; ours is a lumpen-citizenship, just as at the time of the colonies. This imaginary linked to colonization and the history of slavery continues to determine how they perceive us, for the body of the indigenous was constructed during the colonial era. As long as this imaginary is alive, we remain native. (Bouteldja in Kipfer 2010, p. 1158).

To invert the dominant ways of denigrating youth from banlieues as ‘scum’ (racaille), the intention of the MIR  intention is to “invent a politics of the racaille” (Khaiari 2006: 12). In the face of social abjection stake the MIR stake the counter-political claim that France is not a post-colonial but a neo-colonial state which calls for novel forms of decolonizing politics.  As Bouteldja argues:

Thirty-years of migrant struggle have failed to build a political alternative with which to give a positive meaning to rage and anger of those living with humiliation and discrimination in the ghettos of France. Thirty years have failed to give our legitimate anger, political expression […]  [Through a new collective politics]  we must protect our children who undergo the extreme violence of the world we live in and, to escape it, find nothing better to do than to repeat it in all its ugliness (Bouteldja, 2012).

This quotation is from an article in which Bouteldja is responding to the events of Monday 19 March, 2012 when, a day before the 50th anniversary of the end of the Algerian war of independence from French colonial rule, Mohamed Merah, a 23-year-old French citizen with an Algerian family background, murdered a 30-year-old man and three small children outside a Jewish school in French city of Toulouse. In his account of these terrible events, the historian Andrew Hussey insisted that these murders should be read as symptomatic of deepening neo-colonial conflicts within the French nation. As he writes:

Mohamed Merah has been described in the French press and by politicians as a “un loser”, a narcissist, a lone wolf, a one-off. Everybody knows that this is not true. Indeed, what no one wants to say out loud, politicians or media, is that although he may have been a loser, he is far from being alone. For many young Algerians in the banlieue, Islamist activity is more than a religion; it has become a badge of cultural revolt, a weapon of war against a world that they feel hates them and that they hate in return. This is why they describe their conflict as “the French intifada”. […] France itself is under attack from the angry and dispossessed heirs to the French colonial project.[…] to be French and Algerian in 2012 is not only to have a ferociously contested identity, but to have an identity that is denied or hated by one side or the other (Hussey, 2012).

Like the MIR, what Hussey insists is acknowledged is that xenophobic forms of French nationalism and the scapegoating of citizens of Algerian descent, is historically shaped. The daily humiliations of abjection in the banlieues whether they manifest in riots, in ugly acts of terrorism and murder, religious extremism or more banal forms of criminality and dispossession are symptomatic of the ways in which ‘a generation’s alienation has erupted into violent loathing’ (Hussey, 2012). What the terrible events in Toulouse revealed is that ‘memory holes’ will always fail to contain the truth, namely that the violence effected by muslim youths is an effect of a double-denial, that of colonial history and the neo-colonial inequalities of the social and political present tense. However difficult the task, we must, as Hussey insists, do the critical work of understanding the roots of contemporary forms of marginality as symptomatic of on-going forms of colonial violence and dehumanisation. For as Stefan Kipfer notes, the ‘post-colonial situation is neither mere historical residue nor simple replication of colonialism in the metropole. It refers to the selective transformation and re-inscription of colonial forms’ within contemporary modalities of neoliberal governmentality (Kipfer 2011: 1159). As Badiou argues, we get the riots we deserve (Badiou, 2006, p. 114) — see also chapter six.

Abject Normativity

In Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Conquest McClintock, like Spivak, argues that abjection (and psychoanalysis more broadly), is a concept forged from imperialist ideologies. However, for McClintock this is precisely why abjection is useful for mapping the mechanisms of imperialist power relations. As she writes:

Under imperialism […] certain groups are expelled and obliged to inhabit the impossible edges of modernity: the slum, the ghetto, the garret, the brothel, the convent, the colonial Bantustan, and so on. Abject peoples are those whom industrial imperialism rejects but cannot do without: slaves, prostitutes, the colonized, domestic workers, the insane, the unemployed. […] Certain threshold zones become abject zones and are policed with vigor: The Arab Cashbah, The Jewish ghetto, the Irish Slum, the Victorian garret and kitchen, the squatter camp, the mental asylum, the red light district, and the bedroom. Inhabiting the cusp of domesticity and market, industry and empire, the abject returns to haunt modernity as its constitutive inner repudiation: the repudiated from which one does not part  (McClintock, 1995, p. 72)

McClintock describes her application of abjection as ‘a situated psychoanalysis’ which ‘refuses a universal and ahistorical account of abjection, in favour of an examination of its distinct, contradictory and interrelated dimensions’ in specific locales and historical contexts (McClintock, 1995, p. 72-73). McClintock’s account is useful also in drawing attention to both the spatial dimensions of abjection as they are made manifest in the abject zones and border spaces of the nation-state: such as the council estates and places of migrant detention which I will explore in later chapters of this book.

In a similar vein if a different scholarly register (philosophy rather than post-colonial history) Butler introduces the category of “norms” to destabilise the universalistic and a-historical foundations of psychoanalytic law.   As Butler notes, ‘a norm is not the same as a rule, and it is not the same as a law’  (Butler, 2004, p. 41). For Butler, whilst psychoanalytic laws might operate as normalizing principles which govern psychic life and ‘the social intelligibility of action’ (Butler, 2004, p. 41), they are not immutable or a-historical facts, but are sedimentations of existing social practices (Butler, 2004, p. 44).  In other words, if we understand psychoanalysis as shaped by material social relations, we can ascertain the performative force of psychoanalytic laws as forms of “truth” which are in actuality historically contingent norms. Mobilizing the principle of “the norm” against “the law” creates a space for the consideration of the specificity of forms of abjection as lived and as contestable. This intervention is pivotal, because understanding abjection as a regulatory norm allows us to examine the ways in which abjection is incited in service of other norms and ideals, be they norms of gender, social class, citizenship, national belonging. As Foucault writes, ‘the judges of normality are present everywhere’ (Foucault, 1977, p. 304). Focusing on the constitution of gendered and queer bodies as abject, Butler demonstrates how psychoanalytic theories of the subjectivity ‘not only produce the domain of intelligible bodies, but produce as well a domain of unthinkable, abject, unlivable bodies’  (Butler, 1993, p. xi).

What is emerging here is a social theory of abjection, where abjection is understood as a mechanism of governance through aversion, which might, in Butler’s terms, be queered through alternative citational practices. The effects of a particular form of abjection is dependent upon the ways in which a norm is cultivated, incited, repeated, practiced,  mediated and  performed.  For example, as Fanon notes on racial hatred in the USA:

Hate is not inborn; it has to be constantly cultivated, to be brought into being, in conflict with more or less recognized guilt complexes. Hate demands existence, and he who hates has to show his hate in appropriate actions and behaviour; in a sense, he has to become hate.  That is why the Americans have substituted discrimination for lynching. Each to his own side of the street  (Fanon, 2008, p. 37).

The metropolitan racism described by Fanon here constitutes the subject who hates but the specificity of the objects of hatred do not originate within the subject but are socially cultivated and ideologically sanctioned. What I am arguing for here, is a contingent account of abjection, in which the force and impact of aversive emotions, hate-speech and xenophobia relate to a subjects particular vulnerability to abuse by power  (Butler, 1997).  We need to examine the mechanisms through which norms of abjection are fabricated, operationalized and internalised. It is only by critically engaging with abjection as contingent expressions of normativity that we might begin to disarticulate the effects of abjection as lived.

In her writing on queer marginality Butler suggests that the political question which emerges from abjection is how `socially saturated domains of exclusion be recast from their status as “constitutive” to beings who might be said to matter?’ (Butler, 1993, p. 189). Matter is the stuff of which a thing is made, its constituent material. Matter is also a synonym for a theme or subject, as in the phrase `the matter in hand`. To make something matter describes an attempt to bring something urgent or pressing to attention. However, as Butler suggests to make something matter can also imply a more violent forcing of matter into an identifiable form or name. As Butler asks: ‘How do tacit normative criteria form the matter of bodies? And can we understand such criteria not simply as epistemological impositions on bodies, but as the specific social regulatory ideals by which bodies are trained, shaped and formed?’ (1993, p. 54). Butler reminds us here of the violent effects of classification. To understand how abjection gives rise to resistance, we need to shift the emphasis to a consideration of the material effects of being made abject within specific historical, social and political locales. Only through an empirical focus on the lives of those constituted as abject can we consider the forms of political agency available to those at the sharp edge of subjugation within prevailing systems of power. For example, Butler suggests that queer theory and activism involves ‘the politicization of abjection in an effort to rewrite the history of the term, and to force it into a demanding resignification’ (1993, p. 21).  The politicization of abjection which Butler describes involves both the historicization of abjection—which refuses the psychoanalytic account of abjection as a totalising pre-history of the subject—and the collective demand of those made abject to be heard in the political present tense (Butler 1997, p. 21).

As the MIR make explicit through their activism and their writings, central to the politicization of abjection is ‘territorial reappropriation’ (Kipfer 2011: 1157). If the abject is a spatalizing politics of disgust, which functions to create forms of distance between the body politic proper and those excluded from the body of the state (and forced to live in internal border zones such as banlieus), then the politics of the abject is a counter-spatial politics which attempts to reclaim the spaces and zones of abjection as radical sites of revolt and transformation. As the MIR contend, this project of decolonzation involves both physical and psychological strategies of counter-control, it is at heart a body-politics:

France was a colonial state . . . France is still a colonial state! . . . The treatment of people from the colonies prolongs (but is not reducible to) colonial policy . . . The colonial cancer takes over the mind . . . Decolonizing the Republic is a must! (MIR 2005 in Kipfer 2011: 1157- 1158, my emphasis).

Being Made Abject

It is abjection as lived — as a form of exclusion and humiliation which ‘takes over the mind’ —which Fanon explored in Black Skin: White Masks ([1952] 2008) and Wretched of the Earth ([1963] 2004), his pivotal studies of the psychopathology of colonial oppression and metropolitan racism. Fanon’s work offers a unique insight into both what it means to be made abject—and conversely how subjugated populations revolt against their abjectification.

In Black Skin White Masks Fanon offers an account of the psycho-politics of racialization and the interiorisation of inferiority (which he terms ‘epidermalization’). His writing is grounded in the insight that the fabrication of race is the central mode of colonial and post-governance. For Fanon racial differences are forms of categorisation which are fomented as systems of power. To experience oneself as black is precisely to be made black by a white other.

who had woven me out of a thousand details, anecdotes, stories […] a constellation of postulates, a series of propositions that slowly and subtly - with the help of books, newspapers, education, text-books, posters, cinema, radio - work their way into one's mind and shape one's view of the world and of the group to which one 
belongs (Fanon, 2008, p. 84, 111).

As Fanon argues ‘not only must the black man be black; he must be black in relation to the white man’ (Fanon, 2008,, p. 83). The implications of this insight are more complex than first appears. This isn’t a simple account of racial alterity, in which power operates through the constitution of the other as an abject. Rather, Fanon’s analysis of the psychological consequences of colonialism and post-colonial state racism, lead him to conclude that ‘white power’ operates by excluding blacks from the self-other dynamics of subjectivity itself (see Fuss, 1994). ‘The blackman has no ontological resistance in the face of the white man […] I am battered down by tom-toms, cannibalism, intellectual deficiency, fetishism, racial defects, slave ships’ (Fanon, 2008, p. 83-85). What Fanon produces, in his extraordinary prose, is an account of colonial and post-colonial power in which subjectivity is the prerogative of the white man alone. As Lotringer notes:

People don’t just become abject because they are treated like a thing, but because they become a thing to themselves. It is only then, when they are being invaded and exposed to the vertiginous experience of existing apart from the human race, that abjection comes about (Lotringer, 2000).

In The Wretched of the Earth Fanon details the debilitating forms of pathology which this gives rise to. As he wryly notes ‘[t]he truth is that colonization, in its very essence, already appeared to be a great purveyor of psychiatric hospitals’ (Fanon, 2004, p. 181). Fanon offers a series of case studies drawn from the period when he worked as a psychoanalyst in a hospital in Algeria during the war of Independence. His intention is to explicate ‘the scope and depth of the wounds inflicted upon the colonized’ (Fanon, 2004, p. 182).  Case no. 3, is that is a 19 year old man a fighter in the Algerian National Liberation Front who had been committed to the hospital after he murdered a woman. Fanon describes this patient as exhibiting the characteristic signs of ‘colonial depersonalisation’: deeply depressed, persistent insomnia, suicidal, incoherent thoughts and episodes of auditory hallucination (Fanon, 2004, p. 192).  As Fanon writes ‘From time to time, could no longer speak and asked for a pencil. Wrote: “Have lost my voice, my whole life is fading away”’ (Fanon 2004: 192). Fanon relates this speechlessness to the patients recurring hallucination in which his blood is spilled: ‘he begged us to stop the haemorrhage and not let them come into the hospital to ‘suck the lifeblood’ out of him (Fanon, 2004, p. 192). Samira Kawash argues that what is significant about this account is that in his dream the patient does not die but continues to live ‘suspended between life and death’ in a zombie-like condition (Kawash, 1999, p. 248) — see also chapter three. What Fanon narrates by means of this and other case-studies is and account of how colonialism functions by collapsing the ego structures of black men, destroying their self-esteem, desire and purpose: A process of ‘being made abject’ which he describes as being sealed into a ‘crushing objecthood’ (Fanon, 2008, p. 82).

What it important about Fanon’s contribution to the phenomenology of racialised oppression is that doesn’t stop at documenting the effects of abjection but uses this critical labour to explore the potential for political agency and resistance. As Fanon systematically argues, colonial power negates the equal humanity of colonized peoples by denying the attributes of humanity. However ‘deep down the colonized subject knows no authority. He is dominated but not domesticated. He is made to feel inferior, but by no means convinced of inferiority’ (Fanon, 2004, p. 16). In other words, there is always a disjuncture between the interpellation of the colonized subject (as abject), and their experience of themselves (as human nonetheless). This dissonance, between perceptual realities, forces the colonized subject to ask: ‘Who am I in reality?’ (Fanon, 2004, p. 182). As Kawah argues, the question “who am I?” challenges colonial reality by communicating the disjunction between a reality that demands non-existence and a corporeal presence that nevertheless persists (Kawah 1999, p. 248). The ‘epidermalization of oppression’ is always incomplete and this disjuncture allows for a ‘reversal into contestation and revolt’ (Ziarek, 2005, p. 63). The work of self-reflection and critique leads to direct forms of action and resistance. Or as Fanon puts it ‘Having reflected on that, I grasp my narcissism with both hands and I turn my back on the degradation of those who would make man a mere mechanism’ (Fanon, 2008, p. 12).

Melancholic States

In a series of interviews, published as Revolt, She Said (2002) Kristeva revealed that she had never read any of Fanon’s work and dismissed him as a thinker who ‘isn’t part of the mainstream of psychoanalytic studies’ (Kristeva, 2002, p. 110). This rebuff is not a minor oversight, Fanon was a central figure in the 1960s left-wing French intellectual scene in which Kristeva’s career fomented. Indeed, it is simply impossible to conceive the intellectual and political climate of France in the 1960s, without a consideration of the influence of Fanon, who inspired and deeply influenced the theory and political praxis of the key intellectual figures of this period: notably Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre (who published and wrote the preface to The Wretched of the Earth in 1961, the year Fanon died). As Homi Bhaba notes, ‘on the day of his death, the French police seized copies of The Wretched of the Earth from the Paris bookshops’ (in Fanon, 2004, p. viii). Kristeva’s “white-washing” of Fanon’s influence not only on the May 68 student and workers uprising in France but on many of the most significant subsequent political uprisings of the twentieth and twenty-first century (including the black power movement in the USA,  the South African black consciousness movement, the Irish Republican Movement, the Iranian revolution and global struggles against the US-led War on Terror) is extraordinary and reveals the depth of the theoretical and political “memory hole” within her writing.

In her work on postcolonial melancholia (a much better way of conceptualising the ‘national depression’ diagnosed by Kristeva) Ranjana Khanna theorises the ways in which the postcolonial state—unable to fully acknowledge and hence to properly mourn/memorialise the history of Empire—ingests colonialism within itself as as a kind of swallowed object which clefts the state from within (Khanna 2006). The ethical imperative she and other postcolonial scholars variously suggest, is to work from the sites of ambivalence and dissonance which this melancholia effects. As she writes:

No map, census, print, or museum can be entirely successful at presenting the nation seamlessly. While the work of mourning may relegate swallowed disposable bodies to the garbage can of modern nationalism, the work of melancholia, critically attesting to the fact of the lie intrinsic to modern notions of sovereignty, is the only hope for the future (Khanna, 2006).

It is important to note however that ‘the swallowed disposable bodies’ which Khanna describes are not absent or invisible but are on the contrary at the organisational centre of national and political life. It is not only a question of ‘what counts as a recognizable frame of reference in scholarly and public debate’ (Stoler, 2011, p. 129) but how histories of violence congeal in figurations of abject others which in turn effect new forms of subjectivity and subjugation.

National abjects are in psychoanalytic terms fetishistic figures. A fetish describes attempts by a subject to defend itself against what is already knows but wishes to forget  (Khanna, 2011). The disavowal of colonial violence resurfaces in fetishistic figurations of “foreign threats” within the body politic—leading in turn to the kinds of pathologies described by Fanon and the MIR and revolts against the interpellative effects of being made abject. As Stoler argues:

histories that do not rest in the past. They speak to how new subjects are produced and what they refuse, to the state apparatus that makes people into “problems,” and to the intimate and social violences that accompany how rights and resources are distributed throughout the world today (Stoler, 2011, p. 156).

In Revolting Subjects I argue that we need sustained and critical accounts of how melancholic states fashion national abjects: figures whom, as I will argue throughout the book, are transformed into vehicles which both legitimate prevailing forms of political consensus and effect new forms of violence on those interpellated as human waste.

Mixed Thinking

If Fanon’s work is often “missing” from European psychoanalytic and theoretical canons, what is often missing from postcolonial studies is an account of how histories of class violence—and class struggle—combine with imperial histories of racialization to effect contemporary forms of “state melancholia”.  We can perceive this in the “left melancholia” which suffuses mainstream politics and critical theory today. In the globalised world of the twenty-first century, economic polarisation has reached unparalleled depths both in terms of the deepening inequalities within post-industrial nation states such as Britain and in terms of the staggering inequalities between the global north and the global south. This is because, as David Harvey (2008) argues neoliberalism is a class project: an ideology which aimed to restore and consolidate class power, under the veil of rhetoric of individualism, choice, freedom, mobility and national security. Without some understanding of class struggle it is impossible to theorise the politics of global economic restructuring, urban disinvestment, the intensification of resource extraction and ecological crises, the opening up of state-borders to flows of capital and migrant labour, new forms of slavery, the emergence of a new class of super-rich, the deepening precarity of all labour, the demise of the post-war social contract and the fraying of the welfare state.

In The Birth of Biopolitics (2008) Foucault argued that the political form and structure of contemporary societies —and the biopolitical governance which characterises the neoliberal state—was effected by the invention of race (and associated notions of indigenousity and natural entitlement). The “war against race” is, he argues, what constitutes the nation-state and the source of conflict from which sovereignty generates legitimacy. Foucault theorises class struggle as an effect of race-war, suggesting that class be understood as a (secondary) effect of racialization (Foucault, 2008, p. 19). What Foucault attempts to delineate, by thinking race and class together, is the common (enlightenment) roots of colonialism, fascism and capitalism. This in turn allows to us to focus on the commonality of the struggles against state and colonial violence these intertwined histories of oppression have affected (see chapter six).

It is this same insistence that we need to think class struggle and post-colonial struggle together which characterised much of Stuart Hall’s early foundational work in British cultural studies in the late 1970s—the seminal book Policing the Crises was published in 1978, period in which Foucault gave his final pivotal lectures. Both Foucault and Hall where influenced by Fanon’s “mixed thinking” about race and class. Indeed, the title of Fanon’s final book, The Wretched of the Earth is drawn from the first line of the 19th Century socialist anthem “The Internationale” [‘Stand up, damned of the Earth’] and is Fanon’s own acknowledgement of the common roots of declassificatory struggles (see chapter five). It is in this tradition of “mixed thinking” that the MIR also call for in linking anti-colonial, anti-capitalist movements and feminist movements. As Kipfer suggests, the MIR’s political activism have three inter-linked dimensions or targets, 1) ‘common experiences of humiliation at the hands of authority and mainstream society’, 2) the role of gendered, class-based and racial discrimination ‘in facilitating economic superexploitation’ and 3) the linking of local struggles to transnational political movements (Kipfer 2011:1162). The theory of social abjection forged in this book is indebted to, and draws upon these “mixed” histories of political thinking and activism. It is the contention of Revolting Subjects that classed, gendered and racialised histories of dehumanisation and disenfranchisment need to be thought together—as different but related forms of classificatory violence (see chapters six and seven). Social abjection is a conceptual frame which precisely attempts to think race, class and gender together.

Conclusion: Social Abjection

Each of the theorists I have drawn upon in this chapter rework psychoanalytic vocabularies of identity, desire, fantasy, recognition and attachment in ways which produce “psycho-social” accounts of subjectivity and power. Together these accounts move us beyond the orthodoxy of psychoanalytic doctrine, whilst allowing us to retain what is most useful about thinking how power operates to constitute subjects. That is how hegemonic norms constitute a sense of selfhood which is experienced as “interiority”. Fanon’s account of epidermalisation explores how abject identifications and interpellations are internalised, that is he offers an account of how the social “gets inside us” and constitutes self-perception. Whilst Butler reveals how subjects become deeply invested in the norms which nevertheless subjugate them. It is through norms that we are granted the possibility of social recognition – we are all deeply invested in the moral values and forms of social capital which unfold from normative ideals. The relationship between the personal and the political is knotted together within these psycho-social accounts of subjectivity—and abjection enables us unravel and examine these knots. The account of social abjection which unfolds across Revolting Subjects is a psycho-social theory—which both draws upon—whilst troubling—a psychoanalytic register.


The state, as the geographer Alison Mountz (2010) reminds us, is not mysterious, abstract, all-powerful entity which is detached from our daily lives, but is on the contrary a constellation of embodied practices. As she writes,’[t]he powerful machinations of the state appear not in the borders drawn on maps and the pages of public policies, but in the fractured fault-lines of daily practice’ (Mountz, 2010, p. xii). The state becomes ‘knowable through its daily interactions with citizens and others’ (Mountz, 2010, p. xxxi-xxxii).  What the conceptual frame of abjection reveals is that neither the subject nor the nation-state are solid or completable entities but assemblages of practices. The subject and the state are continually being made and undone (Butler and Spivak, 2007). Indeed, my reason for (re)turning to abjection is because it is a concept which describes the labour of both subject-formation and state-formation and as such it allows us to think these different modalities of ‘making’ together. Social abjection describes the process of inclusion/exclusion through which subjects and states make and unmake themselves.

Social abjection is an apt interpretive frame through which to practices of state-making because, as numerous political philosophers have detailed state-power is also constituted through exclusion (see for example the work of Hannah Arendt, Carl Schmitt, Giorgio Agamben). That is the state exercises power through exemption –the withdrawal of the law, and the withholding or removal of rights and recognition from people within its territorial space. Which is why for Arendt ‘the exemplary moment of sovereignty is the act of deportation’ (Butler in Butler and Spivak, 2007, p. 102). It is through exercises in abjection that different arms and operations of state are constituted as agencies with power by differentially determining the value of life—who is expendable and who is of worth. However, as Bauman (2004) suggests, in neoliberal societies waste populations are increasingly created within states, by for example, the withholding citizenship from migrants (see chapters 2,3,4) or enforcing poverty on people through diminishing opportunities for welfare, education and work (see chapters, 5, 6). Moreover, as I will detail throughout this book these ‘wasted humans’ are transformed into national abjects who are employed to legitimate neoliberal forms of governmentality by affecting a permanent insecurity within the body politic (Bauman, 2004, p. 5, Wacquant, 2010).

What I am arguing here is that there can be no real understanding of political agency without working through specific, located, concrete instances of protest. This argument is central to the story-telling methodology of Revolting Subjects which explores resistance in ways which attempts to trouble generic categories such as bare life through considerations of particular revolts against abjection and their documentary after-lives. It is from this perspective and through the lens of what Nyers terms a ‘minor biopolitics’ of ‘reappropriation or riposte’ that I want to consider the naked protests of the Yarl’s Wood mothers against their abjection (Nyers 2004: 214).

Social abjection is a theoretical resource which enables us to consider of states of exclusion from multiple perspectives, including from the perspective of those who are ‘obliged to inhabit the impossible edges of modernity’ (McClintock 1995, p. 72). Those border zones within the state, in which the overwhelming imperative is not transgression, but survival. 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. As Bhaba notes, ‘the affective experience of social marginality—as it emerges in noncanonical cultural forms—transforms our critical strategies’  (Bhabha, 1994, p. 172). The critical task, as Butler describes it, is to consider abjection not as a ‘permanent contestation of social norms condemned to the pathos of perpetual failure’, but rather as ‘a critical resource in the struggle to rearticulate the terms of symbolic legitimacy and intelligibility’ (Butler, 1993, p. 3). Or as Khanna expresses it ‘the challenge is to conceive of forms and categories of political life that will stop the creation of garbage-can populations’ (Khanna, 2009, p. 193). The chapters that follow 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.

Abjection is a ‘revolting concept’ which names but also has the capacity to trouble the symbolic and material forms of violence it describes. It is by employing revolts against abjection as a map or guide that Revolting Subjects attempts to breach open the dustbin of history. The insurgencies of those designated as abject— enable us to unravel histories of violence and lay them to waste .

To cite: Imogen Tyler (2013), ‘Social Abjection’, Revolting Subjects: Social Abjection and Resistance in Neoliberal Britain, Zed: London.

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