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Children of Men and the abject non-subject

Updated: Jul 21



The academic Imogen Tyler states that; “Abjection describes the violent exclusionary power forces of sovereign power: those forces that strip people of their human dignity and reproduce them as dehumanised waste.”[1] In social terms, For Tyler, then, it is apparent that those in ‘abjection’ are ultimately marginalised and ‘exclusionary sovereign powers’ are in fact enacted by the state on to potential subjects in order to make them non-subjects of the state. The abject, then, is the non-subject, they are ‘reproduced and dehumanised’ in governmental discourse becoming; The rightless. The stateless. The abject.


It is here that a paradox begins to mobilise itself for the abject is that which is classified as classless but is still nevertheless classified, precisely in this non classification; that on the outside of the classified is the abject. Abjection thus becomes reserved for what Julia Kristeva cites as that which; ‘disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions or rules.’[2] This psychoanalytical perspective alludes to that which presents an eruption of the Lacanian real, as the abject is beyond representation within the symbolic order, it is then ambiguous. This ambiguity ultimately leads to repulsion towards the abject, due to its estrangement from the subject; the abject then, is the invader of the spatial domain of the subject. Becoming a potential contamination to the subject and can be viewed fundamentally as a threat to the symbolic, and ultimately that which is understood by the subject, precisely in its rupturing of the symbolic.


Though this perspective may work well on an explanatory level of defining the abject, its main limitation is that it relies on the abject to be that which is prehistorical and transcends political discourse. Its explanation asserts a non-political, universal definition without acknowledging the role of governmentality in defining what is abject and more importantly who is abject. As Tyler states; Fear [of the abject] is not a psychological truth[..] but is incited by the political elites as a means of securing political power.”[3] Tyler then borrows from Kristeva as yes, the abject is an alien entity, but is made alien due to the dehumanising efforts of the ‘political elite.’ For Tyler, a power relation is in place between the ‘abjectee’, that is the marginalisd, and the ‘abjector’ that is the ‘political elite.’ For the abject cannot become the abject without the powers of the state, and political power cannot expand without its assertive measures in creating the abject; the most stringent measure the sovereign state can impose is the literal non- acknowledgement which it can impose on the abject.

Tyler proclaims that; “The Politicization of abjection is […] a [the] spatialising politics of disgust, which functions to create distance between the body politic proper and those excluded from the body of the state.”[4] Here, it is asserted that disenfranchisement is enacted on spatial grounds; the abject is placed away from the body politic to ascertain their difference; The body citizen resides in well maintained residential areas in comparison to the abject, whom resides in a setting totally contrasting this notable examples include the ghetto, and in the instance of the asylum seeker, the detention centre.

The detention centre exemplifies the notion of the neoliberal ‘black world.’ For Tyler, they create a symbolic marking of the deserving and the non-deserving[5].Insofar as the abject asylum seeker is housed within. ‘The black world’ neoliberal government creates within the detention centre is that the condition of the abject is not expressed to the public from their own perspective. However, it is acknowledged that they exist, alluding to a level of complicity on behalf of the body politic. The significance of this is that power structures are employed by the sovereign state in order to establish power over the abject, with the body politic ultimately complicit due to the otherness which is placed upon the abject, they become so dehumanised that the body politic come to see those in said detention centres as the other and beyond empathy precisely due to the differentiating between spaces employed by the government. The contempt towards the asylum seeker exemplifies, on behalf of the citizen, what Tyler calls ‘Asylum invasion complex[6]’ this is the fear of the immigrant; they who come to your country to steal your job. It is they who make a mockery of your welfare state. They are the source of your problems and repulsion.

If neoliberalism essentially sees the expansion of private companies undertaking government contracts, then it becomes clear that the expansion of these detention centres is undertaken because the market demands it. The expansion of the detention centre is then, at its core, a business. The battle of private companies to get these government contracts sees the birth of immigration as an industry.[7] This suggests that ‘the dehumanisation of others is central to neoliberal governmentality’ simply in that the market demands it. This exemplifies the power relation between the ‘abjector’ and ‘abjectee’ being built upon economic need.

In the dystopian film children of men, Bexhill camp functions to represent the neoliberal detention centre. Theo and Kee enter the camp and are greeted with iconography that is reminiscent of that associated with the holocaust[8]. People are herded into cages; their luggage piles up around the entrances and one guard is shown to scream; “you people disgust me” and “get up you piece of shit.”[9]One purpose of this iconography, on an explicit level, is that the mis-en-scene depicts a chaotic scene in which the ‘fugees’ are herded like cattle and dehumanised with their possessions being stripped from them. This dehumanisation creates an image of the process of becoming abject. The speed at which these troops are getting the ‘fugees’ into the centre alludes to the neoliberal demand placed upon the ‘immigration industry.’

Cuarón’s use of iconography regarding the piled suitcases is of course not accidental. It is in instances such as this where the film begins to critique contemporary attitudes of the abject diaspora. If dystopia aims to defamiliarize the familiar in order to make a statement about contemporary society, then such strong iconography alludes to one of the largest instances of social ‘abjectification’ in Western living memory. In invoking a likeability of a Nazi-esque regime within Britain in the not so distant future , the film demands that the viewer question the process of ‘abjectivism’ and simultaneously their complicity of it, by confronting the viewer with the notion that Britain is in fact enacting a system of state racism in order to serve itself. In addition, the iconography used also stresses that the abject is historicised; Neoliberal Britain’s detention centres are like Nazi concentration camps. This renders the abject as an entity created by governments and furthers the notion that they are indeed creations of oppressive governmental measures as opposed to a prehistorical phantasm of the real.


Children of men goes beyond this simple questioning of these notions explicitly, by staging an uprising within the very space of Bexhill[10]. The significance of this is that this film directly advocates the non-space as one of potential rebellion against disenfranchisement; the non-space is ultimately appropriated by the abject in order to exclaim their right to autonomy and acknowledgement. The most apparent function of the rebellion at Bexhill is that it directly challenges the notion that to create an abject space is to further its own power as this power is directly resisted by the displaced abject precisely within the non-space that was originally erected in order to nullify its influence. The film, then, demands of its viewers to acknowledgement of the abject and their condition, to understand what it means to be abject, to question their own complicity of the abject and to note that the abject is human and have every right to be recognised by the state.

In conclusion the implication of Tyler’s assertion that “the relentless dehumanisation of others is central to neoliberal governmentality” appear that the state uses the abject in order to further its interests. However, as shown in children of men, in order to expose this one must abandon their complicity and acknowledge the historical lessons of the abject in order to realise the hypocrisy at play within neoliberal modes of governance.

[1] Ibid.p.21 [2] Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An essay on abjection, English Translation, Columbia University Press, (1982) [3] Tyler,p.39 [4] Ibid.p.41 [5] Ibid.p.71 [6] Ibid.p. [7] Ibid.p.72 [8] Sarah Schwartzman, Children of Men and a Plural Messianism [9] Children Of Men Dir. Alfonso Cuarón (Universal Studios,2006) [10] Ibid.

#childrenofmen #ImogenTyler #immigration #abjection

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