Abjection and Liminality

This topic relates to medicalization. In article within the field of critical fat studies, Kristin Hardy writes,

According to Kristeva (1982), entities which transgress the psycho-cultural boundaries between subject and object, particularly those which appear simultaneously part of the living body-subject and yet not, inhabit a ‘space of abjection’ and generate an uncanny unease for those who encounter them. From this perspective, which seeks to yoke Mary Douglas’s ‘matter out of place’ (1966) to Lacanian theory, the psychic repulsion experienced with regard to the ambivalent and fetishized object prompts efforts to ‘cast it out’ from the self, in order to more firmly establish oneself as fully within the symbolic order. This process, fraught with anxiety, places the subject, even if unknowingly, directly in touch with the contested boundary zone of the self and the other, and tends thereby to generate feelings of disgust toward the object, which haunts the perception of a stable, vital selfhood. That the association of such disgust with a given entity is not a natural given, but rather a cultural effect, is convincingly argued by Sarah Ahmed (2004), who, drawing on Elizabeth Grosz’s influential work on ‘volatile bodies’ (1994), identifies the locus of abjection in attempts to maintain a given order of things, and specifically situates the feared ‘stickiness’ of the boundary-defying object that will not leave us in peace as ‘an effect of the histories of contact between bodies, objects, and signs’ (Ahmed, 2004: 90). What we experience as abject, in other words, is a consequence of how we order our world and ourselves, and where we collectively opt to delineate the two.

Hardy, K. (2013). The Education of Affect: Anatomical Replicas and ‘Feeling Fat’. Body & Society, 19(1), 3-26.

The abjection concept is closely related to liminality. Matter that is caught between subject and object and that the subject tries to “cast off,” disown, or cleanse from the exterior of the body–e.g., sweat, urine, feces, blood, semen, body odor–is considered abject. Abject matter might be literally or metaphorically “sticky.” A dead body is also considered abject because it’s caught between being a person and not being a person, or subject and object. It must be moved and carried as an object but is also supposed to be treated with respect. The sense of disgust is, of course, socially constructed. Consider the menstruation huts that are still used in some parts of the world. And the expectation for privacy when defecating is a modern cultural norm. According to a recent article on open defecation in India,

No country in the world has more open defecation (OD) than India, where as of 2014, around 525 million of the country’s 1.3 billion population defecated outside. In 2011, 53 percent of Indian households had no toilets. While OD is on the decline, nearly 950 million people worldwide still routinely practice it, and more than half live in India.

Bader, S. (2018). Privacy Please: The controversial approach to ending open defecation in India and Nepal. World Policy Journal, 35(2), 118-123.

The open defecation issue has been medicalized. As the same article (Bader) states,

The prevalence of OD has a particularly terrible impact on children: It exposes them to illnesses that cause malnutrition and stunt growth. Diseases caused by poor sanitation and unsafe water kill 1.4 million children per year, more than measles, malaria, and HIV/AIDS combined. In India, diarrhea kills more than 100,000 children every year under the age of five.

Liminal zones are particularly prone to tabooization. Consider, for example, the various cultural expectations surrounding farting or burping in public.

By focusing on hygiene, the discourse tries to be culturally neutral. This is what medicalization does. Menstruation has also become a hygiene issue, rather than being embedded within cultural practices that bind women together. The same thing happened to childbirth beginning in the 19th century. Scientific medicine (and men) took over what was traditionally women’s domain.

In terms of abjection, the handling of dead bodies has also become a “culturally neutral” hygiene issue. Sex has also become a hygiene issue, with prevention of STDs becoming the most important thing. The health function system is not concerned with preventing pregnancy among adolescents because pregnancy isn’t an illness. The primary concern is STD prevention.

Liminal objects or zones must be observed, of course. An observing system makes a distinction. In the case of fat, an observer might draw a distinction between fat and muscle, or “good” and “bad” flesh. Thus we have moral distinction.

Hardy observes that

powerful medical interests . . . reduce fat subjects into isolated and pathologized physical parts.

Fat has, of course, been medicalized; however, critical fat studies, among other things, politicizes fat. It observes fat with different distinctions, such as dominant/subordinate or center/margin. It looks at how fat discourse serves to marginalize a set of people. While medicalization seeks to return patients to “normal” health, politicization seeks some kind of political power or social change. Here is a quote from Ms. Magazine:

Susie Orbach said it best back in 1978: “Fat is a feminist issue.” Fat is also a queer issue, and a racialized issue, and an issue of class—because fatness is inseparable from all other intersections of identity.


Although western societies do not have menstruation huts, we do have a menstrual taboo. As Brumberg (1993) writes,

Part of this taboo is the idea that women should not talk about their monthly bleeding (although women and girls clearly do), and that, when menarche occurs, it should remain a private concern without public acknowledgment. But the trouble with a great deal of thinking on this subject is that it portrays our menstrual taboo­ and menarche itself–as fixed and universal when, in fact, both are changeable, subject to reformulation, and highly specific to time and place. There are societies where no such taboo exists and some where there is no requirement at all for what we call “sanitary protection.”

Brumberg, J. (1993). “Something Happens to Girls”: Menarche and the Emergence of the Modern American Hygienic Imperative. Journal of the History of Sexuality, 4(1), 99-127.


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