In contemporary critical theory, abjection is often used to describe the state of often-marginalized groups, such as people of color, prostitutes, homosexuals, convicts, poor people and disabled people. In this context, the concept of abject exists in between the concept of an object and the concept of the subject, something alive yet not. This term originated in the works of Julia Kristeva. Often, the term space of abjection is also used, referring to a space that abjected things or beings inhabit.
According to Kristeva, since the abject is situated outside the symbolic order, being forced to face it is an inherently traumatic experience. For example, upon being faced with a corpse, a person would be most likely repulsed because he or she is forced to face an object which is violently cast out of the cultural world, having once been a subject. We encounter other beings daily, and more often than not they are alive. To confront a corpse of one that we recognize as human, something that should be alive but isn't, is to confront the reality that we are capable of existing in the same state, our own mortality. This repulsion from death, excrement and rot constitutes the subject as a living being in the symbolic order.
This act is done in the light of the parts of ourselves that we exclude: un-namely – the mother. We must abject the maternal, the object which has created us, in order to construct an identity. This is done on the micro level of the speaking being, through her subjective dynamics, as well as on the macro level of society, through "language as a common and universal law." We use rituals, specifically those of defilement, in order to maintain clear boundaries between nature and society, the semiotic and the symbolic. This line of thought begins with Mary Douglas' important book, Purity and Danger, as well as in Kristeva's own Black Sun.
The concept of abject is often coupled (and sometimes confused with) the idea of the uncanny, the concept of something being "un-home-like", or foreign, yet familiar. The abject can be uncanny in the sense that we can recognize aspects in it, despite its being "foreign". An example, continuing on the one used above, is that of a corpse, namely the corpse of a loved one. We will recognize that person as being close to us, but the fact that the person is dead, and "no longer" the familiar loved one, is what creates a sort of cognitive dissonance, leading to abjection of the corpse.
In the 1980s and 1990s many artists became aware of this theory and reflected it in their work. In 1993 the Whitney Museum, New York, staged an exhibition titled Abject Art: Repulsion and Desire in American Art, which gave the term a wider currency in art. Cindy Sherman is seen as a key contributor to the abject in art, as well as many others including Louise Bourgeois, Helen Chadwick, Paul McCarthy, Gilbert and George, Robert Gober, Carolee Schneemann, Kiki Smith and Jake and Dinos Chapman.
According to Barbara Creed in Horror and the Monstrous Feminine a male's relationship with the mother and other females is complicated by the use of the feminine in horror and science fiction as we are forced to confront it as horrific and abject. Through an analysis of the film Alien (1979) and the female roles and representations, Creed explains how females are often related to the object of horror, be they as the object of horror or the object of the actual horrors' desire/hatred. The conclusion is that through monstrous representations of the female or the Mother, the audience is drawn into viewing them as abject rather than subject or object. The aliens themselves from the film in question are often described as having phallus-like appendages in the shape of their head and tongue, while maintaining an almost female form. Their interaction with the human crew takes on very abject roles as one crew member, a male, is forcibly impregnated (clearly as a product of rape) with an alien that eventually rips itself from the male 'womb' in a horrific scene of blood and gore. The process of a male being impregnated through the mouth with a creature that gestates -- in a being that has no womb -- and rips itself free in a shower of blood is one way in which this film abjectifies female roles.
Abjection is also a major theme of the 1949 work The Thief's Journal (Journal du Voleur) by French author Jean Genet. As a criminal outcast from society, during a fictionalised account of his wanderings through Europe in the 1930s, he claims to actively seek abjections as an existentialist form of 'sainthood.'