In the last three years a new filthy vocabulary of social class has emerged in Britain. The word “chav”, and its various synonyms and regional variations, has become a ubiquitous term of abuse for white working class subjects. An entire slang vocabulary has emerged around chav. Acronyms, such as “Council Housed and Vile” have sprung up to explain the term. Folk etymologies and some scholarly sources suggest that the term chav might derive from a distortion of a Romany word for a child, while others suggests it is a derivative of the term charver, long used in the North East of England to describe the disenfranchised white poor (see Nayak). In current parlance, the term chav is aligned “with stereotypical notions of lower-class” and is above all “a term of intense class-based abhorrence” (Haywood and Yar 16). Routinely demonized within news media, television comedy programmes, and internet sites (such as the chavscum) the level of disgust mobilized by the figure of the chav is suggestive of a heightened class antagonism that marks a new episode of class struggle in Britain.
Social class is often represented through highly caricatured figures—the toff, the chav—figures that are referred to in highly emotive terms. One of the ways in which social class is emotionally mediated is through repeated expressions of disgust at the habits and behaviour of those deemed to belong to a lower social class. An everyday definition of disgust would be: an emotion experienced and expressed as a sickening feeling of revulsion, loathing, or nausea. The physicality of disgust reactions means that the communication of disgust draws heavily on metaphors of sensation. As William Miller notes, disgust “needs images of bad taste, foul smells, creepy touchings, ugly sights, bodily secretions and excretions to articulate the judgments it asserts” (218). Our disgust reactions are often revealing of wider social power relations.
As Sara Ahmed notes:
When thinking about how bodies become objects of disgust, we can see that disgust is crucial to power relations. … Disgust at “that which is below” functions to maintain the power relations between above and below, through which “aboveness” and “belowness” become properties of particular bodies, objects and spaces (89).
Ahmed’s account of the connection between disgust and power relations echoes Beverly Skeggs’ influential account of “class making”. As Skeggs suggests, class as a concept, and as a process of classification and social positioning, is not pre-given but is always in production and is continually re-figured (3).
Social class virtually disappeared as a central site of analysis within cultural and media studies in the late 1980s, a disappearance that was mirrored by a similar retreat from the taxonomy of class within wider social and political discourse (Skeggs 45). This is not to say that class distinctions, however we measure them, have been eroded or are in decline. On the contrary, class disappeared as a central site of analysis at precisely the same time that “economic polarization” reached “unparalleled depths” in Britain (ibid.). As the term “working class” has been incrementally emptied of meaning, teaching and researching issues of class inequality is now often seen as “paranoid” and felt to be embarrassing and shameful (see Sayer). (Roland Barthes uses the concept of ‘ex-nomination’ to explain how (and why) social class is emptied of meaning in this way. According to Barthes, this process is one of the central mechanisms through which dominant classes naturalise their values.) In the last two decades academics from working class backgrounds and, perhaps most perversely, those who work within disciplines that were founded upon research on class, have increasingly experienced their own class origins as a “filthy secret”.
If social class “directly articulated” and as “the object of analysis, has largely disappeared” (Skeggs 46) within the academy and within wider social and political discourses, portrayals of class differences have nevertheless persisted within popular media. In particular, the emergence of the grotesque and comic figure of the chav within a range of contemporary British media, primarily television comedy, reality-genre television, Internet forums and newspapers, has made class differences and antagonisms explicitly visible in contemporary Britain. Class-based discrimination and open snobbery is made socially acceptable through claims that this vicious name-calling has a ‘satirical’ function. Laughing at something is “an act of expulsion” that closely resembles the rejecting movement of disgust reactions (Menninghaus 11). In the case of laughter at those of a lower class, laughter is boundary-forming; it creates a distance between “them” and “us”, and asserts moral judgments and a higher class position. Laughter at chavs is a way of managing and authorizing class disgust, contempt, and anxiety.
Popular media can be effective means of communicating class disgust and in so doing, work to produce ‘class communities’ in material, political and affective senses. In the online vocabulary of chav hate, we can further discern the ways in which class disgust is performed in ways that are community-forming. The web site, urbandictionary.com is an online slang dictionary that functions as an unofficial online authority on English language slang. Urbandictionary.com is modelled on an internet forum in which (unregistered) users post definitions of new or existing slang terms, which are then reviewed by volunteer editors. Users vote on definitions by clicking a thumb up or thumb down icon and posts are then ranked according to the votes they have accrued. Urbandictionary currently hosts 300,000 definitions of slang terms and is ranked as one of the 2000 highest web traffic sites in the world. There were 368 definitions of the term chav posted on the site at the time of writing and I have extracted below a small number of indicative phrases taken from some of the most highly ranked posts.
all chavs are filth
chavs …. the cancer of the United Kingdom
filthy, disgusting, dirty, loud, ugly, stupid arseholes that threaten, fight, cause trouble, impregnate 14 year olds, ask for money, ask for fags, ….steal your phones, wear crap sports wear, drink cheap cider and generally spread their hate.
A social underclass par excellence. The absolute dregs of modern civilization
The only good chav is dead one. The only thing better than that is a mass grave full of dead chavs and a 24 hour work crew making way for more…
This disgust speech generates a set of effects, which adhere to and produce the filthy figure and qualities of chav. The dictionary format is significant here because, like the accompanying veneer of irony, it grants a strange authority to the dehumanising bigotry of the posts. Urbandictionary illustrates how class disgust is actively made through repetition. Through the repetition of disgust reactions, the negative properties attributed to chav make this figure materialize as representative of a group who embodies those disgusting qualities – a group who are “lower than human or civil life” (Ahmed 97). As users add to and build the definition of “the chav” within the urban dictionary site, they interact with one another and a conversational environment emerges. The voting system works on this site as a form of peer authorization that encourages users to invoke more and more intense and affective disgust reactions. As Ngai suggests, disgust involves an expectation of concurrence, and disgust reactions seek “to include or draw others into its exclusion of its object, enabling a strange kind of sociability” (336). This sociability has a particular specificity within online communities in which anonymity gives community members license to express their disgust in extreme and virulent ways. The interactivity of these internet forums, and the real and illusory immediacy they transmit, makes online forums intensely affective communal spaces/places within which disgust reactions can be rapidly shared and accrued.
As the web becomes more “writable”, through the development and dissemination of shared annotation software, web users are moving from consuming content to creating it ‘in the form of discussion boards, weblogs, wikis, and other collaborative and conversational media” (Golder 2). Within new media spaces such as urbandictionary, we are not only viewers but active users who can go into, enter and affect representational spaces and places. In the case of chavs, users can not only read about them, but have the power to produce the chav as a knowable figure. The chav thread on urbandictionary and similar chav hate forums work to constitute materially the exaggerated excessive corporeality of the chav figure. These are spaces/places in which class disgust is actively generated – class live. With each new post, there is an accruement of disgust. Each post breathes life into the squalid and thrillingly affective imaginary body of the filthy chav.
Class disgust is intimately tied to issues of racial difference. These figures constitute an unclean “sullied urban “underclass”“, “forever placed at the borders of whiteness as the socially excluded, the economically redundant” (Nayak 82, 102-3). Whilst the term chav is a term of abuse directed almost exclusively towards the white poor, chavs are not invisible normative whites, but rather hypervisible “filthy whites”. In a way that bears striking similarities to US white trash figure, and the Australian figure of the Bogan, the chav figure foregrounds a dirty whiteness – a whiteness contaminated with poverty. This borderline whiteness is evidenced through claims that chavs appropriate black American popular culture through their clothing, music, and forms of speech, and have geographical, familial and sexual intimacy with working class blacks and Asians. This intimacy is represented by the areas in which chavs live and their illegitimate mixed race children as well as, more complexly, by their filthy white racism. Metaphors of disease, invasion and excessive breeding that are often invoked within white racist responses to immigrants and ethnic minorities are mobilized by the white middle-class in order to differentiate their “respectable whiteness” from the whiteness of the lower class chavs (see Nayak 84). The process of making white lower class identity filthy is an attempt to differentiate between respectable and non-respectable forms of whiteness (and an attempt to abject the white poor from spheres of white privilege).
Disgust reactions work not only to give meaning to the figure of the chav but, more complicatedly, constitute a category of being – chav being. So whilst the figures of the chav and chavette have a virtual existence within newspapers, Internet forums and television shows, the chav nevertheless takes symbolic shape in ways that have felt material and physical effects upon those interpellated as “chav”. We can think here of the way in which” signs of chavness”, such as the wearing of certain items or brands of clothing have been increasingly used to police access to public spaces, such as nightclubs and shopping centres since 2003. The figure of the chav becomes a body imbued with negative affect. This affect travels, it circulates and leaks out into public space and shapes everyday perceptual practices. The social policing of chavs foregrounds the disturbing ease with which imagined “emotional qualities slide into corporeal qualities” (Ngai 573). Chav disgust is felt and lived.
Experiencing the frisson of acting like a chav has become a major leisure occupation in Britain where middle class students now regularly hold “chav nites”, in which they dress up as chavs and chavettes. These students dress as chavs, carry plastic bags from the cut-price food superstores, drink cider and listen to ‘chav music’, in order to enjoy the affect of being an imaginary chav. In April 2006 the front page of The Sun featured Prince William dressed up as a chav with the headline, “Future Bling of England”, The story details how the future king: “joined in the fun as his platoon donned chav-themed fancy dress to mark the completion of their first term” at Sandhurst military academy. William, we were told, “went to a lot of trouble thinking up what to wear” (white baseball cap, sweatshirt, two gold chains), and was challenged to “put on a chavvy accent and stop speaking like a royal”. These examples of ironic class–passing represent a new era of ‘slumming it’ that recalls the 19th century Victorian slummers, who descended on the East End of London in their many thousands, in pursuit of abject encounters – touristic tastes of the illicit pleasures associated with the immoral, urban poor. This new chav ‘slumming it’ makes no pretence at any moral imperative, it doesn’t pretend to be sociological, there is no “field work”, no ethnography, no gathering of knowledge about the poor, no charity, no reaching out to touch, and no liberal guilt, there is nothing but ‘filthy pleasure’.
The cumulative effect of disgust at chavs is the blocking of the disenfranchised white poor from view; they are rendered invisible and incomprehensible. Nevertheless, chav has become an increasingly complex identity category and some of those interpellated as filthy chavs have now reclaimed the term as an affirmative sub-cultural identity. This trans-coding of chav is visible within popular music acts, such as white teenage rapper Lady Sovereign and the acclaimed pop icon and urban poet Mike Skinner (who releases records as The Streets). Journalist Julie Burchill has repeatedly attempted both to defend, and claim for herself, a chav identity and in 2005, the tabloid newspaper The Sun, a propagator of chav hate, ran a ‘Proud to be Chav’ campaign. Nevertheless, this ‘chav pride’ is deceptive, for like the US term ‘white trash’ – now widely adopted within celebrity culture – this ‘pride’ works as an enabling identity category only for those who have acquired enough cultural capital and social mobility to ‘rise above the filth’.
Since the publication in English of Julia Kristeva’s Power’s of Horror: An Essay on Abjection in 1982, an entire theoretical paradigm has emerged that celebrates the ‘transgressive’ potential of encounters with filth. Such theoretical ‘abject encounters’ are rarely subversive but are on the contrary an increasingly normative and problematic feature of a media and cultural studies devoid of political direction. Instead of assuming that confrontations with ‘filth’ are ‘necessarily subversive and disruptive’ we need to rethink abjection as a violent exclusionary social force. As Miller notes, ‘disgust does not so much solve the dilemma of social powerlessness as diagnose it powerfully’ (353). Theoretical accounts of media and culture that invoke ‘the transformative potential of filth’ too often marginalize the real dirty politics of inequality.