Trigger warnings: violence; ableism; bodily fluids; vomiting/digestion; body horror
Wanna grow up to be
Be a debaser
Debaser . . .
— Pixies, “Debaser,” 1989
I recently reread Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, a treatise by Julia Kristeva from 1980. As literary theory from 1980 that draws on the psychoanalytic theory of Jacques Lacan and Sigmund Freud, it seems cis-sexist and Eurocentric today, but I still find its concepts useful now. Abjection is an embodied concept — often viscerally so — which makes it uniquely suited to disability theory.
Kristeva defines abjection, in part, in this way. ”It is thus not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules (4).” The dictionary definition is similar but more straightforward:“1: a low or downcast state: DEGRADATION
2: the act of making abject: HUMBLING, REJECTION.” Kristeva’s essay describes a specific, feminist view of body horror and feeling dispossessed and alienated from oneself. “An exile who asks, “ ‘WHERE?’ (Kristeva 8).”
Near the beginning of her essay, Kristeva uses the visceral, sensory example of feeling repulsed by milk. “But since the food is not an ‘other’ for ‘me,’ who am only in their desire, I expel myself, I spit myself out, I abject myself with the same motion through which ‘I’ claim to establish myself (3).” From the beginning of the essay, abjection is linked with revulsion, horror, loss of self, and external threats to the self.
Although it shares some elements with the uncanny, such as the potential for body horror, Kristeva distinguishes abjection from the uncanny. “Essentially different from ‘uncanniness,’ more violent, too, abjection is elaborated through a failure to recognize its kin; nothing is familiar, not even the shadow of a memory.” Whereas the uncanny relies on the tension between the familiar and the unfamiliar, or the Self and the Other, abjection totally alienates the self. Abjection prevents a self from forming, so it cannot be repressed in the first place. Repression, at least for Freud, presupposes a subconscious. Abjection does not.
If disabled people are made abject by our societies, our identities form around internalized ableism. Whether I describe it as the Uncanny, abjection, or Gothic horror, I’m always trying to articulate how some non-disabled people viewed me as inferior, exceptional, or bizarre.
Why do I keep returning to Todd Strasser’s Help! I’m Trapped . . . 1990s, middle-grade book series, which I understand was meant to be humorous and for children? It was a formative text for me — absurdly enough — as banal and silly as it may seem. At age nine, I was always looking for myself and my friends in books. Instead, I found a dog in a human body, pretending to be a disabled person: a parody of a human being.
(And some people think I’m always angry! How could I not be? My subjectivity as a disabled person, reader, and writer was still forming. And I’m still writing my way out of it.)
My friends and classmates at school, physical therapy, and summer camp had various kinds of disabilities, and this made me feel like a proud member of the disabled community for my whole life. I’d already noticed that some non-disabled adults thought I moved strangely. Often, the same adults would be even more condescending to non-speaking kids than they were to me because they understood my speech. So, I knew in some unconscious way that we disabled people experience different forms of ableist marginalization.
The ableism in this series goes beyond the uncanny. In February 2020, I called it a comedic version of the uncanny and an example of dehumanization. I still believe it is both of those things. It is also abjection. I have a B. A. In English lit, so I like to analyze the same text from multiple critical perspectives, without attempting to replace my own previous works on the Uncanny. This is additive. The perspectives complement — and don’t negate or detract from — one another.
Unlike the uncanny, Kristeva’s essay on abjection relies on bodily fluids, especially excretions, extensively. This is one reason I think abjection theoretically fits Strasser more closely than The Uncanny does. On Book Riot in February 2020, I described how Strasser’s book for children uses bodily fluids to marginalize disabled people:
“In Help! I’m Trapped in Obedience School Again, the human characters struggle to explain why ‘Jake’ is walking and standing oddly, drooling, incontinent, and unable to speak or read. If you’re familiar with me or my work, you’ll understand why I started to panic while reading at this point. ‘It’s a speech impediment,’ Jake’s friend Andy explains (40). So, to recap: in an attempt to hide the fact that Jake’s dog is inhabiting Jake’s body, Andy pretends that this dog in a human body is actually a disabled person!”
It doesn’t matter to me whether the ableism here was intentional because the implication was so apparent to me, even as a child. The false, blatantly ableist subtext here was something like: “If you drool, spit, are incontinent, or don’t walk or talk in normative ways, you are not a real person, or do not resemble one. Furthermore, we (non-disabled adults) assume that you are not aware of the joke, much less complicit in it.” Humor conveys many cultural messages about who is a real person or who is aberrant and has “something wrong with them.”
In 2016, Melinda Hall connected ableism and its subversion in the horror genre to Kristeva’s essay on abjection. “I go on to argue that trademark moves in the horror genre, which typically support ableist assumptions, can be used to subvert ableism and open space for alternative social and political thinking about disability. “
I don’t have access to this textbook, Reimagining Disablist and Ableist Violence as Abjection by Ryan Thorneycroft, but I wanted to provide examples of other disability theorists who connected the concept of abjection to ableism before I did. I try to explain my ideas in a way that might be more accessible than academic texts — and for free. I do think my Book Riot articles are the most accessible to a general audience or perhaps the best place to start.
More literary examples:
In June 2020, I described the pervasive ableism of Philip Roth’s 2010 novel Nemesis:
“Horace, a character with an intellectual disability, is constantly described as monstrous or inhuman. Kids call him ‘the (ableist slur),’ as if this is his name. Remember how I said idiot and moron used to be different diagnoses/degrees of IDD? The narrator actually uses the distinction. He specifies that while neighborhood kids call him ‘moron,’ he’d probably be diagnosed ‘idiot’ or ‘imbecile’ instead.
Non-disabled characters suspect his hygiene of spreading literal ‘shit’ everywhere, thus infecting them all with polio. In one scene, I noticed the dehumanizing contrast between the ‘hysterical boy’ (Kenny, who’s not disabled) and the ‘terrified creature’ (Horace). As I wrote here in ‘On Dehumanization’: ‘notice who’s a person here and who’s not.’
Even Bucky, a generally kind person who’s nice to Horace’s face, describes him as an aberration, a perverted joke from God. This is an extreme example of the everyday condescension, hatred, and hypocrisy that disabled people face.”
The particular focus on bodily excretions and uncleanliness makes the novel’s characterization of Horace an example of abjection. Kristeva connects bodily excretions both to literal and religious or ritual uncleanliness. Excretions like feces, urine, and sexual fluids, according to Kristeva, breach the barrier between the self and the outside world. Furthermore, in my view, only certain people (overlapping groups including disabled people, elderly people, sick people, and sexual assault victims) are associated with these bodily fluids in a personal, humiliating way. For healthy, non-disabled people, bodily fluids are unnoticeable or literally and figuratively roll right off of them.
In the 2014 novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan, a character who is a prisoner of war shouts repeatedly in anguish: “Me! Me! Me!” The narrator says: “But what he meant, none of them really knew.” It’s ambiguous because the character can’t express how he feels at that moment. However, I interpret this as showing the depth of his trauma. It means something like “this is happening to me” or even “I’m still me.” Abjection, through trauma, attempts to destroy his sense of self. For Kristeva, abjection is humiliation, even unto death.
More personal examples
My mom is a retired elementary school teacher. Whenever anyone — especially relatives, her students, or I — would be sick or incontinent in public, she’d reassure the person that “It’s just a part of life” and “Everyone does it.” I’m glad that my family always tried their best to counteract the stigma around bodily functions. Despite their consistently good intentions, the fact that “it happens to everyone” seems beside the point to me as an explanation, in retrospect. No, we’re not all a little bit disabled. Similarly, we all use the bathroom, but not everyone needs accessible restrooms, adaptive equipment, or other assistance. As is often the case with disabled people, something that happens to non-disabled people as well happens to us in a different way or to a greater degree. And therein lies the inaccessibility or ableist, normative separation from non-disabled people.
In 2019, Mari Ramsawakh published their essay “Incontinence Is a Public Health Issue — And We Need to Talk About It,” later republished in Alice Wong’s anthology Disability Visibility. “Incontinence is not just an embarrassing incident. It’s a public health issue,” Ramsawakh wrote. For non-disabled people, though, it may be a rare, isolated incident. I’m also grateful to fellow disabled writers like Ramsawakh for helping to de-stigmatize incontinence.
To return to the concept of abjection, though: we all have bodily functions; that much is a given. But are these everyday or isolated incidents? Are we associated with them in a personal or humiliating way? Or do they, literally and figuratively, disappear or roll right off of us? To me, this distinction is where the ableist stigma and abjection begin.
The epigraph before this essay comes from the Pixies song “Debaser,” which is itself a reference to the Surrealist, silent film Un Chien Andalou by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí. The film is a series of bizarre, disjointed images and suggests a razor slicing a human eye. Especially to today’s audiences, this part looks obviously fake, but it’s still a monumental and disturbing film. The film, the abuse it depicts, and the word debasement sum up the concept of abjection.