Abject Secrets: Sexual Violence and Marxist-Feminist Categories - MSPEN

Amy De'Ath


This paper is concerned with the emerging Marxist-feminist category of the “abject”: what the Endnotes collective pragmatically outline as previously waged reproductive work that has become unwaged as a result of neoliberal austerity measures, and thus transformed into denaturalised, indirectly market-mediated activities that must be performed or executed by “someone” in order for the production of surplus-value to continue in the directly market-mediated sphere. Endnotes describe the abject as “that which is cast off, thrown away, but from something that it is part of,” and their rendering of the abject shares key characteristics with Julia Kristeva’s definition of abjection as “the twisted braid of affects and thoughts” that has no definable object, and which draws us “toward the place where meaning collapses.”

But Kristeva’s exploration of this category points towards another dimension in which abject reproduction is performed, often under duress. This gendered abjection is of a kind qualitatively distinct from the definition Endnotes provide, and the most obvious examples of it involve the variously slow to spectacular forms of sexual and gendered violence to which feminised people are subjected. The intellectual and affective responses—the “dealing with”—that these types of structural violence demand are a component of what Silvia Federici calls “the psychological work necessary to reintegrate our physical and emotional balance.” Both of these abject components can be viewed as forms of unpaid “non-labour” that must be made doubly invisible in order for the production of value to continue in the waged sphere. The abject is cut off from the social in a double-dissociation: not only is it deprived of social validation as waged labour, but it is also cast off from what is socially validated as non-labour, the mundane activities of reproductive life—the time supposedly spent cooking, cleaning, washing, exercising etc.—that enables us to turn up at work each day. In proposing that we expand our definition of “the abject” as a Marxist-feminist category, I mean to include that which is not talked about openly: physical and mental activity that is relegated to a feminized and/or racialized realm of secrecy, or otherwise casually framed as an illegitimate or irrational response to a heteronormative and white supremacist social sphere of official “equality,” in a process involving, to borrow Angela McRobbie’s words, “a privatisation of grievances.”

If we accept this expanded definition of “the abject,” then we can see how the binary categories of naturalised and denaturalised labour that “The Logic of Gender” relies on don’t quite map the current shape and condition of abjection under capital, even as it is broadly introduced as “that which cannot be subsumed or is not worth subsuming.” Nor is it easy to theorize the abject within the parameters of economic analysis or according to a critique of the labour theory of value, given the need to be precise about what counts as labour. What kind of work, or activity, is the abject, then, and how does it fit within contemporary Marxist-feminist theories of social reproduction?

Marxist-feminism - Feminised labour - LGBTQI