Philip Scepanski studies American television history and cultural theory. He has presented widely and published numerous articles and book chapters on topics related to television studies, collective trauma, and humor. His book, Tragedy Plus Time: National Trauma and Television Comedy, examines the way television’s most irreverent programming responds to our most serious moments.
Bodily and social abjection: How do people become “cast off?”
Substances that we expel from the body tend to disgust us. Blood, mucus, feces, and urine come out of the body and are cast aside. Society treats certain people and groups similarly, casting them aside from the “social body.” The 1990s television comedy program In Living Color, for example, displayed these concepts with a character named Anton Jackson, played by Damon Wayans. An unhoused black man with substance use issues, Anton demonstrates abjection through both his body and social positioning. In one sketch from the show, he appears at an Army recruiting office, slurring his words and struggling to stand up straight. He picks his nose and wipes boogers on nearby objects. After his pants fall down and the recruiter complains about the smell, Anton refers to it as his “nerve gas.” While military service remains a path towards upward class mobility, he is too abject to follow this path into respectable society.
In most cases, scholars using the term abjection speak to two closely related aspects of the concept: bodily abjection and social abjection. Anton Jackson revels in the abjection of the things that would normally be cast off from the body: mucus, feces, urine, and so forth. These substances are bodily or physically abject. In the most significant essay on abjection, Julia Kristeva (1982) explains that abjection is important to our development as infants. Seeing matter move from being part of our body to being waste forces us to recognize that aspects of our body can become non-living. This, she argues, is important to learning about death. At the same time, many of the fluids that come out of the body—especially feces, blood, and mucus—carry bacteria and viruses, reinforcing associations between abjection, disease, and death. The revulsion we feel towards the abject is the result of both its literal role as disease-carrier and its more symbolic associations with death developed in early childhood. These theoretical understandings highlight that abjection is not simply about the thing that is cast off, it is part of a complex process of removal, through which the status and meaning of the abject change.
The meaning of symbols can be slippery, however, and these associations can easily transfer to other objects, including human beings. Kristeva speaks to the ways groups like women and ethnic and religious minorities bear associations with the abject.
In part because of his bodily abjection, Anton is “cast off” by society. He is socially abject in part because of his inability or refusal to fully remove the physically abject from close proximity to his body. In other In Living Color sketches, he often keeps his “bathroom”—a mason jar full of urine and a single floating turd—on his person. The Army recruiter’s unwillingness to engage with Anton marks the extent to which he cannot be incorporated into society. However, Anton bears other marks of social abjection, as an African American who is unhoused and shows signs of substance use. In various ways and to varying extents, these factors mark him as abject. Again, bearing direct associations with physical abjection, his apparent substance use may partly explain his smell, considering the inability of some users to control their bodily functions. At the same time, certain drugs, especially those involving needles, bring with them implications of diseases. More subtly, Anton’s race marks him as outside the dominant racial power bloc, further expressing his social abjection. However tempting it may be to understand the character as totally abject based on these societal factors, abjection is still a process. Anton was never fully abject, but he is continually re-cast off in moments like his attempt to join the army.
While abjection is used to consider the differences between one’s self and those things that are not the self, the relationship between self and other is complex. Anton keeps his abjection close to himself, finding humor in his own abjection. Similarly, we may keep the abject close to us in various ways, from the exchanging of bodily fluids during sex to keeping the ashes of a dead loved one on the mantle. Maggie Hennefeld and Nicholas Sammond (2020) point out that Western societies are increasingly “incorporating” the abject. That is, groups and individuals are finding ways to draw themselves near, once again, to those things and people that were once cast off. In part, this is reflected in media like In Living Color. Society has grown more comfortable with various gross-out strategies for entertainment in comedy, horror, and other genres. In other ways, efforts by various civil rights movements to gain acceptance within larger society are a sign that once-abject groups are in the process of more fully incorporating.
At the same time, members of dominant groups have attempted in recent years to portray themselves as abject, as evidenced by everything from mainstream conservative attacks on programs like affirmative action in the United States, to more marginal groups like proponents of “white replacement” conspiracy theorists. In this way, members of dominant cultures are incorporating abjection into their self-definition as a strategy to maintain power. Understanding the ways in which some groups are unjustly made abject while others unfairly claim abject status is thus a critical skill for understanding and changing the dynamics of power in contemporary society.
- How does our sense of disgust affect the way we interact with other people? How might we start to address these issues in seeking to build a more just and fair society?
- What other examples from mass media can you think of that play around with abjection to invoke disgust—perhaps from horror, comedy, or another genre? In what ways does your example speak to the sense of social abjection?
- Check out the Instragram feed, curatedbygirls. Select a post that highlights how young feminists are remaking abjection, and explain why.
Creed, B. (1986). Horror and the monstrous-feminine: An imaginary abjection. Screen 27, no. 1: 44–71.
Scott, D. (2011). Extravagant abjection: Blackness, power, and sexuality in the African American literary imagination. New York: New York University Press.
YouTube, “Anton Joins the Army,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FsyZiwlbXd0&ab_channel=LourenBates
Hennefeld, M., and Sammond, N. (2020). Not it, or the abject objection. In Abjection Incorporated: Mediating the Politics of Pleasure and Violence, 1–31. Durham: Duke University Press.
Kristeva, J. (1982). Powers of horror: An essay on abjection. Translated by Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press.