The Wretched of the Earth


The Wretched of the Earth

‘However hard it is kicked or stoned it continues to gnaw at the roots of the tree like a pack of rats’ (Fanon).

In an extraordinary short essay titled ‘Abjection and Miserable Forms’ (Bataille [1934] 1993) Georges Bataille, writing in the shadow of Hitler’s rise to power, developed the concept of abjection to explore what he perceived to be the pressing political issues of the 1930s: ‘the dehumanization of labour, class struggle, mass fanaticism’ (Lotringer, 1993, p. 3).  Bataille argued that abjection is the imperative force of sovereignty, a founding exclusion which constitutes a part of the population as moral outcasts: ‘represented from the outside with disgust as the dregs of the people, populace and gutter’ (Bataille, 1993, p. 9).  Whether this marginality is the effect of an inability or unwillingness to be sucked into proletariat classes of factory workers and servants, or, in the case of fascist (or colonial) systems of power a consequence of perceived racial inferiority, these surplus populations are disenfranchised to the degree that they are ‘disinherited [from] the possibility of being human’ (Bataille, 1993, p. 11). The wretched are those who are deemed fundamentally unequal, right-less, ‘the scum of the earth’ (Arendt, [1951] 1973, p. 267). These are classes of people who are paradoxically, classless, a section of the population that has been omitted ‘from the processes of representation to the point where it can no longer think itself as a class’ (Krauss, 1996, p. 100).

Yet, while they are excluded, Bataille argued that the waste populations created by sovereign power at the same time intrude at the centre of public life as objects of disgust: the ‘national abjects’ I examine in this book. In this sense all prohibitions are inherently paradoxical since, in order for a prohibition to function, it must at the same time be continually transgressed. For example, in order for a sexual practice to be declared obscene, experienced as disgusting and regulated accordingly, it must be seen to be practised within the body politic. Social prohibitions are dependent upon the (re)intrusion of that object, practice, thing or person which has been constituted as abject, cast out and illegalized.  To summarise Bataille’s argument, the disciplinary forces of sovereignty, its processes of inclusion and exclusion, produce waste populations: an excess that threatens from within, but which the system cannot fully expel as it requires this surplus both to constitute the boundaries of the state and to legitimate the prevailing order of power. As Stallybrass and White argue similarly, ‘The low-Other is despised and denied at the level of political organisation and social being whilst it is instrumentally constitutive of the shared imaginary repertories of the dominant culture’ (Stallybrass & White, 1986, pp. 5-6). Waste populations are in this way included through their exclusion, and it is this paradoxical logic which the concept of abjection describes. As Bataille argues, abjection describes ‘the inability to assure with sufficient force the imperative act of excluding abject things (which constitutes the foundations of collective existence)’ (Bataille, 1993, p. 10, my emphasis). Within this paradox lies the possibility of resistance to abjection. As Bataille writes: ‘[i]n the collective expression, the miserable, the conscience of affliction already veers from a purely negative direction and begins to pose itself as a threat’ (Bataille, 1993, p. 10). Or as Fanon puts it in The Wretched of the Earth, ‘however hard it is kicked or stoned it continues to gnaw at the roots of the tree like a pack of rats’ (Fanon [1961], 2004, p. 81).


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