Abjection: A definition for discard studies

Art by Loren Crabbe, from the series “Purging Abjection.”

Art by Loren Crabbe, from the series “Purging Abjection.”

By Mohammed Rafi Arefin
This post is part of the Discard Studies Compendium

Abjection describes a social and psychological process by which things like garbage, sewage, corpses and rotting food elicit powerful emotional responses like horror and disgust. While abjection theory has been used in various ways across the social sciences and humanities, it emerges from the psychoanalytic work of Julia Kristeva.

Drawing on a seminal text in Discard Studies, Mary Douglas’ Purity and Danger (1966), Julia Kristeva’s foundational book The Powers of Horror (1982) develops the theory of abjection through literary, psychoanalytic, and anthropological works. Furthering the insight of Douglas that dirt is not an essential characteristic of objects but is produced through its ambiguity and its subsequent inability to be assimilated into existing socio-cultural categories and systems, Kristeva explains how the constant process of keeping the unclassifiable at bay is a productive act. Abjection is therefore caught in up in the production of the boundaries of peoples’ bodies, societal norms, and the self. In that way, abjection is set in motion whenever we try to make meaning of the world and ourselves. Thus, the abject resides in the liminal space between that which is expressible through language and that which radically resists expression. Studying waste through abjection means being cognizant of the ways in which something beyond meaning (the extra discursive) is continually influential in how we make meaning. This uneasy relationship often causes meaning to break down; in this break down, the fragility of normative orders are exposed.

As such, while abject objects, populations, and practices are commonly thought of as absolutely excluded from normative and sanitized orderings of the body, the household, the city, and the nation, theorists of abjection point to the impossibility of permanently excluding the abject (Sibley 2005; McClintock 1995; Moore 2009; Popke 2001). Abjection theorists ask how that which we attempt to radically exclude constantly returns. This continual insistence of the abject is not just about negation but comes to be a productive process through which prohibitions, taboos, and boundaries are established or contested: it defines the contours of the body and the body politic. The defining quality of the abject, then, is not an essential trait that elicits feelings of disgust or horror, but rather anything that muddles normative borders and divisions and thus threatens a breakdown in conventional or dichotomous ways of making meaning of the world.

Geographers and other social scientists studying waste and its relation to issues of social and environmental justice have used abjection to consider how objects, people, and practices are tagged as dirty and subsequently marginalized (Moore 2009). In studies of garbage, discards, or any kind of material waste, abjection is often used to understand how these things become the mediators of socio-cultural and spatial inclusions, exclusions, and difference. For example, in a study of waste in Oaxaca, Mexico, geographer, Sarah Moore shows how residents of a neglected neighborhood blocked flows of trash to draw attention to their socio-spatial exclusions and resulting inequality (Moore 2008).

The abject, though, is not limited to objects. Other studies have shown how people and practices can also be understood through abjection (Valentine 1998). Populations that deal with waste are tagged as dirty through their material association with trash (scavengers, trash collectors, recycler) (Gidwani and Reddy 2011). Populations can be marked as abject through their metonymic, metaphorical or other symbolic associations with dirt or filth (the poor, sex workers, queer populations; ethnic, religious or racial minorities). This shows how abjection functions through existing symbolic structures like imagined vectors of contagion (Moore 1995; McClintock 1995).

Social scientists and humanities scholars examining questions of inequality and social justice find a productive focus on the tenuous in-betweens and breakdowns of meaning, but abjection is, again, not limited to these realms (Miller 1997). Kristeva also shows how abjection functions in literature and art; through what she labels as “abject art”, Kristeva specifically highlights how some art forms relying on disgust and horror in the face of wasted objects, exposed bodies, and filthy practices work with a deep understanding of how abjection functions. While the abject art movement (encompassing the works of Andre Serrano, Valie Export, and Hannah Wilke) exhibits marked differences with contemporary trash art and trash artists, they share the aim of muddling the boundaries between art and trash, the sublime and the disgusting.

Abjection allows those who work closely with trash, whatever their field, to understand it as an object that exists in liminal spaces of utmost importance, namely, the body, the household, the city, and the nation. Whether mediating questions of social justice and marginalization (Moore 2009) or questions of aesthetics (in the case of abject art), abjection has centered trash as a mediator, instigator and threat to traditional ways of understanding the world.


Douglas, M. (1966). Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concept of Pollution and Taboo. New York: Routledge.

Gidwani, V. and Reddy, R.N. (2011). The Afterlives of “Waste”: Notes from India for a Minor History of Capitalist Surplus. Antipode 43: 1625-1658.

Kristeva, J. and Roudiez, L. (1982). Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. New York:  Columbia University Press.

McClintock, A. (1995). Imperial Leather: Race, gender, and sexuality in the Colonial Contest. New York: Routledge.

Miller, W.I. (1997). The Anatomy of Disgust. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Moore, S.A. (2009). The Excess of Modernity: Garbage Politics in Oaxaca, Mexico. The Professional Geographer 61: 426-437.

Moore, S.A. (2008). The politics of garbage in Oaxaca, Mexico. Society and Natural Resources: An International Journal 21: 597-610.

Popke, E.J. (2001). The African Mirror: Geography, Identity and the Epistemology of Modernity. African Geographical Review 21: 5-27.

Sibley, D. (1995). Geographies of Exclusion: Society and Difference in the West. New York: Routledge.

Valentine, G. (1998). “Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones”: A Personal Geography of Harassment. Antipode 30: 305-332.

Mohammed Rafi Arefin is a PhD Student in the Department of Geography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His research interests sit at the intersection of urban geography, geographies of waste and garbage, emotional and psychoanalytic geography, and development studies. He explores these interests in projects around waste and its management trying to uncover the intimate relationship between garbage, culture, power, and politics. His primary work has taken him to Cairo to examine the politics of garbage before, during, and after the January 25th Revolution. Other projects include work on popular representations of hoarding and the transnational trade of hazardous waste.

One thought on “Abjection: A definition for discard studies

  1. Reblogged this on Social Media, Social Good and commented:
    “Populations that deal with waste are tagged as dirty through their material association with trash (scavengers, trash collectors, recycler) (Gidwani and Reddy 2011).”

    In this article, Mohammed Rafi Arefin highlights beautifully the socio-emotional challenges of bringing individuals into the open appreciation and practice of reuse. This risk of personal abjection (or emotional need to feel clean and through that, to belong) is why so many are loathe to embrace the traditional secondhand stores (the stores feel inherently dirty, and/or they feel dirty or second class for going there)… this is a real barrier to driving more sustainable behaviors at a grander scale.

    As such, our best opportunity to collectively reduce what is perceived as ‘other’ or ‘unclean’ (both with respect to waste – and with respect to those who work with those things which are not brand new) is by helping our communities bridge the perception gap between what is trash (the abject) and what is (or could be) art (the sublime).

    As S. P. Dennison puts it, “ability to see beauty is the beginning of our moral sensibility: what we believe is beautiful we will not wantonly destroy.”

    I do believe that many of us see – and/or can be taught to see – that beauty… but while we may see it and want to embrace it, Mr. Arefin’s work points out that the stigma of abjection has made it a brave act to openly admit to an affinity for finding value in the waste of others…

    First point: those in the business of sourcing and reselling all things vintage, reuse, and otherwise un-new (and potentially dirty) have a unique opportunity to drive societal change – and increase the perceived value of secondhand stuff – through transparency and education. Where do we get our stuff? What work do we do to make it palatable for a dirt-averse genpop? What is the value of prettying things up so genpop feels good about their sustainable consumption?

    Second point: if we want to collectively draw a society of dirt-averse people into sustainable consumption behaviors, we currently have the wrong people sorting through our waste, charitable product donations, and recycling facility conveyor belts. We need artists and aesthetes, creatives and crafters. We need people who see possibility…who see beauty — and we need these people at all levels of the organizations involved in waste management.

    Third point: If we want to be ready to manage demand as the formerly-dirt-averse join the early adopters in our open appreciation of the sublime (and potentially sublime), then we’re going to need a more effective supply chain for used products and materials, built around beauty.

    Fourth point: for those wondering about how this relates even wildly to social media:
    One of the reasons Junket has been so successful in its social media efforts is through transparency about where our products come from (the trash). We’ve embraced our otherness, our weirdness, openly and socially (despite the risk of abjection) and in so doing, we’ve made it okay for others to become part of a like-minded community of people who also proudly embrace what we embrace. … and this opportunity to alter one’s sense of self from fear-of-shame-or-rejection to security-in-belonging is a pretty powerful transition.

    And yes, surely this example is specific to Junket’s mission. But here’s where it could also apply to you: does your chosen work solve a social problem? Could it? Therein lies your opportunity to engage the right people in something they care passionately about – i.e. passionately enough to pay attention to your message, and to want to be a part of what you’re creating – and with luck, passionately enough to involve others, as well.

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