Imogen Tyler’s Revolting Subjects: Social Abjection and Resistance in Neoliberal Britain uses the pun in its title to set up the dual focus of the work’s analysis. Tyler investigates the way people are categorised as “revolting” via an abjecting politics of disgust which casts certain bodies and certain groups as repulsive and outside the pale. At the same time she considers the strategies of resistance and critique which are available to those put in these situations, and those working alongside them. In the process, she provides an excoriating account of the modern neoliberal state and the violence it inflicts on marginalised groups. Revolting Subjects is a tightly focused polemic against the social logic of abjection and a call for analysis and activism which could dismantle the structures which perpetuate it.
The central line of Tyler’s argument involves the idea that “a major characteristic of neoliberal ‘democracies’ is that they function through the generation of consent via fear and anxiety, rather than fidelity to national identity” (8). These anxieties are maintained and directed by the presentation of “national abjects”, figures onto whom economic and political insecurities can be projected. The images of “the bogus asylum seeker”, “the illegal immigrant”, “the chav”, the “underclass” and “the Gypsy” function in this way, as “existing historical beliefs and prejudices about particular populations coalesce with the current fears and anxieties of precarious populations” (9).
Her methodology draws heavily on Kristeva’s account of abjection in The Powers of Horror, which explored “the psychic origins, function and mechanisms of revulsion, aversion and disgust” and emerged with a model of subjectivity “always in revolt against itself”, enacting and re-enacting a visceral reaction of revulsion which attempts to cast certain physical elements outside the self, whilst being haunted by a fear that they are bound up with that self. (27-9) The act of abjection – both a somatic and symbolic impulse – maps onto the way in which “national abjects” are portrayed and treated in public discourse, threatening both from without and within, defining and menacing the “body politic”. However, Tyler also subjects Kristeva’s work to critique, finding its stress on psychoanalysis as both analytic method and potential solution too focussed on the private realm of the self and the family, and permitting a mystification of its own cultural and political history. Spivak, Fanon and Butler provide resources for her to transform Kristeva’s account of abjection into a political and critical tool which opens up alternative possibilities to the cycle of revulsion and repression.
The readings of “national abject” figures which follow provide a dramatic series of case studies, telling the stories of particular people who have found themselves used by the neoliberal state to maintain the anxiety which underpins the exercise of power. Some striking insights result, as when her investigation of the politics and processes of citizenship suggest that “borders” should not be understood as places, but rather as “unstable, dynamic and embodies practices which need to be continually remade and reaffirmed” (70). This is drawn out of the striking fact that certain migrants are granted “temporary admission” to the country, under which they are “legally considered not to have entered the country”, detaching the physical movement of their bodies from the legal recognition of their presence (70). Equally engaging material emerges in the discussion of Gypsy and Traveller communities, the “marketization” of racism and the way entertainment TV both feeds off and reproduces damaging attitudes (141-8). The chapter on “naked protest: maternal politics and the feminist commons” carried out a persuasive reading of the “naked protest” and “naked curse” without flattening different expressions of resistance into a rhetoric of universal women’s (or human) nature. It was slightly surprising not to see a discussion in this section on the way media images of the naked female body has functioned in recent years when deployed by groups seeking to present the “Western” body as young, attractive and liberated, whilst stigmatizing the “foreign” body as repressed, obscure and revolting.
Alongside these strands, Tyler makes a strong case for the reintroduction of “class” as a critical category and a way of understanding the tensions within a society. Recent work by writers such as Owen Jones and Rhian E. Jones has demonstrated the ways in which class is still powerfully operative as a process and a form of friction, even as it has fallen out of fashion in academic and policy discussions. Tyler’s analysis points out the fact that the apparent “death of class” (like that of history, perhaps) is in fact the triumph of an ideology keen to mystify its own history and mechanisms. Her broader critique of neoliberalism might cause academics to examine the reasons why “class” is so unfashionable as an exploratory category in an sphere where marketization, insecurity and the mystification of labour relations have been rapidly increasing over recent years.
Overall, Revolting Subjects is a timely reminder of the radical potential of cultural studies and the need to place academic work in the context of social struggles. In her phrase, the book comes across as “an unashamed return to the critical vocabularies, energy and oppositional politics that shaped the emergence of cultural studies as a field of study” (215).
Revolting Subjects: Social Abjection and Resistance in Neoliberal Britain, Imogen Tyler (London: Zed Books, 2013). ISBN: 9781848138513 £17.99 I am grateful to Zed Books for providing a review copy of the volume.