Zed Books, London (2013)
ISBN: 1848138512 (pb)
Reviewed by Lisa Wood, Lancaster University
Two years ago Imogen Tyler’s book punched onto the academic book market. Her account of social abjection in neoliberal Britain drawing on multiple contemporary case studies demonstrated how, through revolt, and demands for justice and equality, political agency is exercised, even while demands for recognition often lead to further cycles of punishment and capture (p.12). Often an uncomfortable and maddening read, Revolting Subjects has been (rightfully) positively received and widely acclaimed (in 2014 the book was shortlisted for the Bread and Roses prize for Radical publishing). In the introduction Tyler states that she aims to ‘prise abjection out of the theoretical and political frames in which it is positioned’ in Julia Kristeva’s work (p.13). This is commendably achieved through the thoroughly detailed, accessible cultural analysis and use of well-known and highly ‘storied’ events. Tyler takes each of these and places them directly in front of you, channelling the portrayals and aesthetics of political imaginaries and subverting the discourse to reveal the mechanisms for governance, disgust and resistance that ensue. The ‘political parables’ (p.13) that Tyler draws on are: British citizenship, including the Nationality Act (Chapter 2); the categorisation of ‘asylum seeker’ as a mode of developing political capital (Chapter 3); Naked protest and maternal politics (Chapter 4); stigmatization of Gypsies and Travellers and the forced eviction of Travellers from Dale Farm in 2011 (Chapter 5); class based politics and the figuration of the ‘chav’ in post-2000 Britain (Chapter 6) brought together in the final chapter ‘The Kids are Revolting’ that draws on the ambiguity of the book title – revolting through abjection and revolting in a political sense during the 2011 London riots. The central themes of the book are illustrated in the final ‘afterword’ that takes the Paralympic Opening Ceremony as its focus with the paradox of celebration of disability rights and the controversial privatisation of disability welfare systems in Britain (namely the privatisation of Work Capability Assessments).
Two years on, and after a shift to the right in the 2015 general election in the United Kingdom, the arguments within Revolting Subjects remain pertinent to current politics. Issues of stigmatization and scapegoating prevail in election campaigns. Marginality, social exclusion and injustice are rife in aesthetic and political strategies; demonstrated in the 2015 UK election Labour Party campaign where the damning and normalising rhetoric of ‘hard working families’ persists, evidenced by the tag line for the party’s manifesto, 'Britain only succeeds when working people succeed' (http://www.labour.org.uk/manifesto). As Tyler describes in Chapter 6, such rhetoric and championing for ‘hard working families’ reconfigures poverty as a matter of choice and that, 'only through work could class abjects find a route back into citizenship and into the bosom of the body politic' (p.161). Tyler argues that neoliberalism enables ‘demonic legends’ to be (falsely) conjured. In 2015 we repeatedly see this in contemporary discussions relating to immigration with those purporting to stand against discrimination only serving to enact another, more subtle but equally damming stigma, demonstrating a neoliberal agenda and intimating that legitimacy only comes through work. 'Public monstering' of those who do not work, or who are unable to work, are, Tyler argues, direct consequences of neoliberal economic and social policies. As Tyler suggests, “stigmatization operates as a form of governance which legitimises the reproduction and entrenchment of inequalities and injustices which impact upon us all.” (p.212). The language of democracy is used to justify and channel public hostilities towards vulnerable and/or disadvantaged populations. As Tyler concludes, Revolting Subjects allows us to imagine (if only in a very small way) what it could possibly mean to be made abject – to be tortured by words, images and policies and mechanisms of policing and control which continuously produce you as less than human (p.213). Revolting Subjects is not a tool for analysing discourse, although it is entirely successful in this regard, it is a call to arms for critical sociology, “essential to prise open and fracture the concept of the underclass.” It is not a tool for understanding inequality (although again it is unequivocally effective here too) the strength is in the accessible politics and radical motivation. Of course a typical book review needs to aid the reader in making a decision whether or not to open the covers and engage with the material. This goes without saying. Read this book and I defy you not to be moved, frustrated, outraged and galvanized.