The Scum of the Earth
Imogen Tyler, Revolting Subjects: Social Abjection and Resistance in Neoliberal Britain
Zed Books, 264pp, £16.99, ISBN 9781848138513
reviewed by Jemma Crew
I didn’t attend this particular soirée – not, as a less scrupulous version of myself might have you believe, out of principle – but because I had other plans. Prior engagements notwithstanding, I’d have probably gone – and that is what worries me. I like to think I’m attuned to these kinds of subtle performances of class snobbery, but I could easily have attended that party without questioning at whose expense the fun was to be had.
What Revolting Subjects details is an attitudinal process colouring much of society that has received a disproportionate lack of critical attention considering its substantial influence. Tyler’s name for it is ‘social abjection’, and by this she means the way that particular sub-populations in Britain – travellers, immigrants, young people, the unemployed, the disabled – are excluded from participating fully in social, cultural and economic life whilst at the same time are made use of, manipulated and depreciated in the most systematic ways possible.
Abjection is a process of bordering, of putting up barriers and creating distance between the self and those contaminating others that threaten its dissolution. Extended socially, it is means by which the neoliberal state forms and controls its subjects by fostering a culture of fear and insecurity.
Traditionally, the abject is that which provokes horror: examples include the materiality of flesh, bodily fluids, waste products, blood, uncleanliness and death. A self-described ‘unfaithful’ reader of the French sociologist Julia Kristeva, Tyler puts forward a very different theory of abjection, but it is useful to note that Kristeva sees the aforementioned examples as symptoms - in Powers of Horror (Columbia University Press, 1992) she interprets the abject as ‘what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite.’ Abject people such as those ‘revolting subjects’ Tyler identifies do not provoke disgust because they are disgusting as of themselves, but because they threaten to disturb a system - neoliberalism - that thrives on categorisation, control and division. An important focus of Revolting Subjects is on how these classes of abject populations resist this classification, documenting acts of revolt such as the 2011 London riots which, paradoxically, can reinforce the negative assumptions they attempt to dispel.
The experience of abjection occurs at a guttural level - which is why it feels so natural. Tyler explains that the very strength of our disgust when we are exposed to abject matter not only threatens to overwhelm the person experiencing it but crucially works to legitimise itself:
... because disgust is 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
Rather than challenging our own response we attack the subject that provoked it, which then justifies our initial reaction. However, these reactions are not spontaneous but connected and often determined by wider social norms: ‘There is no disgust without an existing disgust consensus.’ This disgust consensus further paves the way for harsher treatment, a vicious circle all too commonly exploited in the public sphere, most notoriously by the right-wing press.
By theorising abjection as a ‘lived social process’, Tyler politicises it. She intends the book to be a ‘thick, rich social and cultural account of neoliberalism’ compared to the ‘thin logic of market rule’, attempting to liberate abjection from its psychoanalytic stronghold and place it in the service of radical social theory. More than merely observational, the polemic ‘attempts to move us towards revolt - that is, to induce revulsion about the forms of disenfranchisement it describes, as well as provoke the desire to do something about it.’
To do this she highlights the incongruence between the ways in which Britain’s ‘revolting subjects’ are portrayed as drains on the state and the exploitation of their profitability, particularly within the media. Let’s recall again the ‘chav’ figure, whose mockery is deeply ingrained in British culture today. Through the caricature of Vicky Pollard in Little Britain the entertainment industry has made a fortune. What the chav party example reveals is that the way we relate to class can be largely invisible even as it parades in full view on the backs of inebriated young revellers. Behaviour of this kind has become normalised and widespread; seemingly harmless and without consequence. But considering that class war is supposedly dead, there are a surprising number of guerrilla battles going on.
Increasingly so, other segments of the population are being profited from as the message of their worthless status is repeatedly hammered home. The securitisation of immigration has meant the corporations like G4S and Serco have made huge profits through the detention centres they run. Big Fat Gypsy Weddings, first broadcast on Channel 4 in 2010, is one of the channel’s highest-rating programmes ever and earned Firecracker Films, the programme’s producers, millions of pounds of profits. (Bear in mind that for BFGWs, a self-styled documentary, traveller participants were paid nothing, and as Tyler points out, many found the programme misrepresentative in its portrayal of overwhelmingly Irish traveller life). Recently, and to the derision of Twitter (which just shows that there is a semblance of common sense left on the internet) Sky news anchor Anna Botting queried why Kate Middleton still had a baby bump just days after giving birth, while OK magazine’s Royal Baby special included a feature on Kate’s ‘post-baby weight-loss regime’ (OK has subsequently apologised). There’s an industry to be found everywhere, especially one that leeches off the abjection of the maternal – and more broadly – female body.
This profitability of the abject cuts right to the core of the paradox that Tyler highlights. For how can one class of the population – and I use class deliberately here – be both profitable and a drain of resources? Of use-value to an increasingly precarious labour market but decried as useless? How do these incompatibilities resolve themselves? The answer, obviously, is that they don’t. They’re just kept hidden most of the time, obscured by a scaremongering culture of fear that relies on the myth of the feckless, parasitical benefit scrounger, the undeserving poor, the immigrants who steal our jobs and the young people too lazy to give a shit.
Here an interesting idea emerges which, perhaps, explains why the scaremongering of the right-wing press is so effective: it builds upon an anxiety already present. Central to the functioning of the abject is our fear of the other: of what is different, alien, not I. Why such fear? In another world the question might be: why not interest, or curiosity, or even acceptance? We are afraid of these others, these degenerates, these ‘scum of the earth’ ... because without them we have nothing to define ourselves against. These people are abject because we project onto them the worst parts of ourselves – they exist as scapegoats to absolve us of blame, the very worst dregs of society who are responsible for its decline. But without them, who are we, and where is our identity as citizen-subjects? Who can say we contribute to the state if there are no people who leech off it? Without the borders we create our sense of self crumbles, and we will always be the right side of these borders, which change and shift and are remade, and beyond which chaos and incivility lies. And as long as it’s located there, we’re blameless.
For Tyler, abjection is not merely a side effect of neoliberal governance but, increasingly, a central condition of subject formation. If our existence as citizens on the ‘right’ side of the boundary depends upon contrasting ourselves with those we abject, then ultimately we are enslaved to what we are trying to banish. The fear that emerges from this realisation is consequently directed onto these abjects through displays of violence, discrimination and most insidiously, jokes which ‘allow the audience to engage freely in “the pleasures of hatred.”’
Does this ambitious debut work? Yes, mainly. It’s less a book per se than a collection of essays, each of which centres around a particular group of abjects: refugees, travellers, the young, the poor, the disabled. It feels rigid at times, tightly formulaic – I’d like for Tyler to experiment more with any future books (and I hope there are some). Then again, the sheer range of information the book contains – from sources including activist reports, news media, personal anecdotes, interviews and historical data – perhaps necessitates such authorial control, and Tyler lays out this material with confidence.
However, Revolting Subjects is unlikely to reach heights of popularity as experienced by Owen Jones’ seminal Chavs (Verso, 2011). The elephant in the room is the discrepancy between the highly specialised concept of abjection and the social purpose for which Tyler intends it to apply. Tyler may have eloquently put forward a social theory of abjection, lifting it out from under Kristeva’s imposing shadow, but the dominance of theory and the technical language with which it is relayed will not prove easy reading for many.
Persist. Once you’ve got your head around the initial theoretical overload, the latter chapters see this theory put into action and are more lively, anecdotal and engaged. Revolting Subjects is a step forward on that curiously untenable bridge between theory and activism, an important step which has paved the way for others to continue onward. Each of the chapters in Revolting Subjects could easily be a book in itself: these essays are Tyler’s painstaking and valuable groundwork from which further work can spring forth.
As Tyler puts forward near the end of Revolting Subjects, we need to collectively and individually start taking responsibility for the various economic and social problems we face, and stop placing the blame on those who, literally in some cases, are denied a voice. Exiled far enough away that their counter-protests are rarely heard, but near enough to monitor and control, Tyler’s abjects inhabit a no-mans borderzone that needs to be ruptured open. Only then, when the genuine fault lines have been laid bare, can we begin to repair the damage we have done.