Shite, skin and skulls: Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting and the body – Emily Muscat

Emily Muscat is an English with Creative Writing graduate from the University of Birmingham. As well as essays about poop, she also writes poetry and a Birmingham based food blog. Emily now works at UoB on the Graduate Management Training Scheme, where she plans to continue her career in Higher Education.

Suppository scene, Trainspotting (1996)

Shite, skin and skulls: Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting and the body

Whether after reading Irvine Welsh’s 1993 cult classic Trainspotting or watching Danny Boyle’s 1996 film adaptation of the novel, incidents such as the suppository scene or Spud’s bodily fluids spraying over the breakfast table tend to be the moments that stay in the mind of the reader or viewer.[1] The text is littered with graphic descriptions that are meant to disgust and it undoubtedly aims to confront the corporeal nature of heroin addiction head-on. If, however, we look past the shock value and the notoriety these kinds of moments have earned the novel, it is clear that something far more interesting can be taken from the bodily representations within the text.

 In this essay, I will be analysing such corporeal representations in Welsh’s Trainspotting, and, by looking at them through the lenses of Julia Kristeva’s theory of abjection and Michel Foucault’s ideas about the physical body and power structures, I will be arguing that Trainspotting challenges a typical relationship with the body and its place within a capitalist society. The notion that heroin users have an atypical relationship with their bodies as they abuse it with a dangerous substance is one that goes without saying. However, I hope that by analysing the characters’ attitudes towards bodily fluids, corporeal boundaries and the link between the self, the body and technology, I can build a far more complex picture of the addicts’ bodily relationships in Trainspotting and how this, in turn, affects their sense of identity in a capitalist society.

The first part of my argument, that Trainspotting challenges a typical relationship with the body, demands a definition of what I am calling ‘typical’. For the concerns of this essay, the most relevant theory on bodily relationships that we could assert as typical is Julia Kristeva’s theory of abjection. As outlined in Kristeva’s Powers of Horror, when relating to the body, abjection is the feeling, such as uneasiness, repulsion or even horror that we have towards the abject—that which threatens to destabilise our sense of self.[2] The abject is neither the subject nor an object, and it is this blurring of boundaries that causes the reaction of abjection.[3] Ultimately, the abject is what comes from the subject that is in opposition to ‘I’, yet that cannot be fully separated. Though abjection can stem from bodily ‘Otherness’, such as excrement, menstrual blood or corpses, Kristeva asserts that it is ‘not a lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection but what disturbs identity, system, order’.[4] As we shall see in this essay, the theory of abjection not only relates to the individual, but could be considered a cultural code that much of society is built upon.

With this in mind, I want to argue that the representations of the body in Trainspotting challenge this typical relationship, and that the heroin addicts in this text lack the experience of abjection towards their own bodies. Evidence for this lack of abjection in Trainspotting can be found in perhaps the two most notorious chapters, mentioned in the introduction to this essay. It is difficult to discuss Trainspotting without mentioning the scene in which, having relieved himself of diarrhoea into an already blocked and stagnant toilet bowl, Renton realises he has also relieved himself of two opium suppositories that he had earlier inserted. The decision to retrieve the suppositories with his bare hands is an easy one for the desperate addict, and his only point of hesitation stems from concerns related to his addiction (rather than a typical reaction to the faeces), such as the injection wounds on his arm.[5] After retrieving the suppositories, Renton describes how ‘despite ma discomfort at the feel ay water oan ma skin, it seems appropriate tae run ma airm under the cauld tap at the sink’.[6] The word ‘appropriate’ here gives a clear insight into Renton’s lack of abjection; despite his arm being stained brown from the toilet bowl, he only feels the need to wash in order to be ‘appropriate’—a construct of behaviour determined by society rather than an instinctive reaction.

Likewise, in the chapter in which Spud’s ‘cocktail’ of ‘skittery shite, thin alcohol sick and vile pish’ is showered over his girlfriend’s family at the breakfast table, the heroin addict shows a lack of abjection, which is juxtaposed with the far more typical reaction of Mrs Houston.[7] In Powers of Horror, Kristeva describes how ‘spasms’, ‘retching’ and ‘gagging’ act as a protection from the abject such as ‘defilement, sewage and muck’.[8] Mrs Houston’s reaction fits into this protection as she ‘stood mortified for a few seconds, then ran, heaving into the sink’.[9] Spud’s reaction is not one of mortification or bodily spasms but rather one of practicality; he makes a ‘pathetic effort’ to clean up the mess, whilst internally considering the implications it will have for his chances of sleeping with his girlfriend. Not only is this lack of abjection contrasted with other characters in the novel, but it is also at odds with the typical reaction of the reader. I would argue that Welsh’s graphic descriptions of such scenes are designed to create the reaction of disgust or abjection in the reader. Kristeva describes how ‘food loathing is one of the most elementary and archaic forms of abjection’, so it is no surprise, then, that when describing the breakfast table scene, Welsh uses both bodily fluids and food to achieve this reaction:

Brown flecks of runny shite stained Mr Houston’s glasses, face and white shirt. It sprayed across the linoleum table and his food, like he had made a mess with watery chip-shop sauce.[10]

The fact that this simile is Spud’s own thoughts in the first person narration, yet this mixing of food and bodily fluids still does not evoke abjection in him, creates an even more stark contrast between his reaction and the reader’s, who commonly finds such scenes ‘revolting’.[11]

When discussing Kristeva’s theory of abjection in relation to Danny Boyle’s film adaptation of Trainspotting, Christine L. Harold poses the argument that the addict’s bodily relationship is something that is ‘reconfigured’ to a lack of abjection throughout the narrative.[12] Harold points out how, at first, Renton attempts to ‘compartmentalise…the self’, through actions such as using separate buckets for each bodily fluid, during his early endeavour to stop using heroin and become a ‘healthy citizen’.[13] Though he is not successful, this attempt to make clear definitions between his mental willpower and disorderly body is a typical Cartesian approach that separates mind and body and shows a ‘normal’ sense of opposition between the ‘I’ and the abject. Harold argues that this typical relationship is then broken down in moments such as the suppository scene when Renton is forced to confront his own bodily functions.[14] What perhaps Harold doesn’t quite stress enough, however, and what may be far more evident in Welsh’s novel, is that the heroin addiction itself is the thing that allows for this move towards a lack of abjection. It is the importance of the opium suppositories that forces Renton to overcome the abjection that he may have felt before putting his hand in the toilet, shown in his lack of hesitation and his brief remark that ‘Ah gag once, but get ma white nugget ah gold’.[15]

Further evidence for how this transition from a typical bodily relationship to a lack of abjection is intrinsically linked to heroin addiction can be found in two mirroring mirror scenes. Towards the beginning of the novel, when Renton first inserts the opium suppositories, he notes ‘it was the first time ah’d ever stuck ma finger up ma ain arsehole, and a vaguely nauseous feeling hits us’.[16] Here, Renton is confronting his bodily physicality for the sake of heroin, and the experience evokes a typical reaction of abjection. In the next couple of sentences, Renton views his appearance in the mirror and continues this feeling of revulsion at his own reflection, commenting on his ‘disgusting’ spots and how he would make a ‘good couple’ with a girl he has just described as ‘gross’ and ‘repulsive’.[17] In contrast to this, in the final chapter of the novel, immediately after Renton has injected heroin intravenously, he looks into a mirror and says aloud to himself ‘you’re fuckin gorgeous’, then kisses his own reflection.[18] These two mirror scenes act as evidence that the heroin addicts in Trainspotting, as Harold suggests, ‘reconfigure’ a typical bodily relationship to one of a lack of abjection, and I would argue that it is the confrontation of corporeal physicality that is specifically demanded by heroin addiction that allows for this change.

I also want to consider how, as in the two mirror scenes mentioned above, the addicts in Trainspotting appear to display a transgressive disregard for bodily boundaries, contributing to the challenge to abjection that we find in this text.  According to Kristeva, abjection is a protective reaction that arises when borders are crossed and boundaries are broken in order to restore a sense of self.[19] Welsh’s Trainspotting asserts a total disregard for such boundaries, as heroin forces the addict to confront these ‘positions’ and ‘rules’ and function in ‘the in-between’ without experiencing abjection.[20]

Perhaps the most obvious way in which the characters show a disregard for boundaries is by breaking the skin barrier whilst injecting heroin intravenously. When Renton ‘zeroes in, watching the tender flesh give way to the penetrating steel’, the attention that he gives this act and the ‘hit’ that follows suggests he associates this experience with pleasure, which is in contrast to the typically instinctive desire for the skin barrier to remain intact and preserve the boundary between the outside and the ‘horror within’.[21] The word ‘penetration’ is also significant here, in itself suggesting a trespassing of boundaries. When Sick Boy ‘slams’ the injection of heroin into Alison, this penetration of bodily boundaries is immediately compared to other forms of penetration as she ‘gasps, completely serious’ that ‘that beats any meat injection…that beats any fuckin cock in the world’.[22] This could suggest that by using heroin through various forms of penetration, injection and insertion, the addicts develop a transgressive disregard for all such trespassed boundaries and thus the protective reaction of abjection is challenged.

It could be said that this lack of abjection regarding the crossing of physical bodily boundaries might also contribute to a disregard for less literal boundaries relating to the body. In his essay, ‘Tattoos and Heroin’, Kevin McCarron takes the view that ‘junk narratives are incapable of perceiving body and mind as anything but totally separate’ and that they completely subscribe to a dualistic notion of the body and the self.[23] McCarron argues that the ‘mind is the master in junk narratives, the body is the slave’ and that addicts merely violate their material body and use it as an ‘instrument’.[24] I want to suggest that the opposite is, in fact, the case: it is the addict’s disregard for the ‘boundary’ between the self and the body that challenges Cartesian Dualism and the idea that the abject, when relating to the body, can possibly be ‘opposed to I’.[25] The abject does not disturb their identity because they do not see their body as separate from the self. For heroin addicts in Trainspotting, the rejection of boundaries and separations creates a much more fluid and unified relationship between the self, the body, and ‘external’ elements such as bodily fluids and heroin itself, or technology such as the syringe, the needle and the spoon.  Rather than an ‘instrument’, the addict’s body is in a cohesive relationship with the tools that produce the ‘hit’ and the ‘self’ that experiences it:

He droaps a cotton ball intae the spoon n blaws oan it, before sucking up aboot 5mls through the needle, intae the barrel ay the syringe. He’s goat a fuckin huge blue vein tapped up, which seems tae be almost comin through Ali’s airm. He pierces her flesh and injects a wee bit slowly, before sucking blood back intae the chamber…she pulls back her heid, shuts her eyes and opens her mouth, givin oot an orgasmic groan.[26]

The vein that Sick Boy has tapped up here is represented as an extension of the other tools described in the procedure, highlighted by the fact that it seems to be almost coming through Alison’s arm; it may as well be on the other side of the skin barrier. The act of injecting heroin and then replacing the space it filled with Alison’s blood blurs the boundaries between what belongs internally and externally. However, the role of the body as being inextricable from the drug paraphernalia does not, as McCarron has argued, make it separate from the self. In this extract, it is clear that the body is crucial to the user’s experience of the heroin, shown in the ‘orgasmic groan’—at once both a bodily pleasure and a release of endorphins into the brain, which is commonly associated with the self.

Another boundary that is blurred in Trainspotting is that between being alive and being dead, which again challenges a typical relationship with the body. Kristeva states that bodily fluids (which, as we have seen, are not exactly scarce in Trainspotting) represent the border between life and death, but that the corpse is the ultimate abject because it is the border. Again, however, heroin addiction in Trainspotting challenges a reaction of abjection towards that border, constantly pushing at the boundary by willingly partaking in an activity that the addicts know can lead to becoming a corpse. Renton describes himself as a ‘coffin-dodger’ and, as made famous by the opening ‘choose life’ monologue of the film adaptation, defiantly remarks how ‘I choose not tae choose life’.[27] Most published editions of the novel have, after all, featured skull imagery as their cover artwork. The image of the skull also appears within the text, most notably immediately after one of the addicts, Lesley, has come face-to-face with the corpse of her baby. Renton’s narration remarks how ‘her thin, white face is like a skull wrapped in milky clingfilm’.[28] In this chapter, we see the role that heroin plays in blurring the boundary of the corpse; we see Lesley’s child as the literal corpse, due, we assume, to the neglect caused by its mother’s addiction as well as Lesley’s body that resembles a corpse, a characteristic commonly noted in heroin addicts. By the end of the chapter, Renton is cooking Lesley a shot using a shared needle, upon which, though he knows this can spread HIV, a disease which later kills his friend Tommy, he remarks that ‘the truth is that ye dinnae care too much’.[29] Through this blurring of the boundary between life and death, both in the addict’s attitude to dying and the confrontation of the deathly border of the corpse, the characters in Trainspotting can be seen to be challenging a typical reaction of abjection towards that which is, and that which represents, the boundary between life and death.

If we have established that the heroin addicts in Trainspotting do not experience a typical relationship with the body, what might this mean then for their place in a capitalist society? Particularly through the character of Renton, Welsh explores the incompatibility between the identity of a heroin addict and capitalism, and I would argue that it is Renton’s atypical relationship with his body that causes this tension. Heroin use in general is not conducive to being ‘valuable’ within capitalism, and Renton knows this: ‘suppose that ah ken all the pros and cons, know that ah’m gunnae huv a short life, am ay a sound mind ecetera, ecetera, but still want to use smack? They won’t let ye dae it’.[30] Renton here knows that using heroin is a conscious decision to reject capitalist values, and that the notorious ‘they’, those in a position of authority, will attempt to battle this (as shown through Renton’s enforced counselling or compulsory job interviews).

One lens through which we might view this ‘battle’ is Michel Foucault’s theory on how capitalist power relates to the individual’s body. Foucault calls this ‘bio-power’ and states that capitalism ‘would not have been possible without the controlled insertion of bodies into the machinery of production’.[31] Heroin addicts fundamentally challenge bio-power because their addictions debilitate their bodies and cause them to be unfit for work. By deliberately extracting themselves from contributing to the capitalist economy by self-inflicting damage to their bodies, addicts such as Renton are resisting the structure of bio-power. When discussing what he has learnt with his counsellor, Renton remarks:

Ma junk behaviour is anal in concept, attention-seeking, yes, but instead of withholding the faeces tae rebel against parental authority, ah’m pittin smack intae ma body tae claim power over it vis-a-vis society.[32]

Through Renton’s psychoanalysis, we are able to see how his attitude to society stems from his atypical relationship with his body. Kristeva notes that abjection towards excrement is linked to the Freudian anal phase of psychosexual development and maternal authority, so we might be able to see how Renton’s anal expulsiveness, which may be the personality trait behind his heroin addiction in the first place, could also explain his place in society.[33] Kristeva states:

Through frustrations and prohibitions, this (maternal) authority shapes the body into a territory having areas, orifices, points and lines, surfaces and hollows, where the archaic power of mastery and neglect, of the differentiation of proper-clean and improper-dirty, possible and impossible, is impressed and exerted.[34]

This ‘maternal authority and corporeal mapping’ is later repressed by paternal authority and the acquisition of language in the phallic stage and it is this repression that abjection stems from.[35] If then we see Renton as lacking in abjection, and thus lacking in this repression, it may explain why his heroin addiction is linked to his body as a ‘territory’ and a heightened awareness of the ‘power of mastery’ on his body ‘vis-a-vis society’, or ‘bio-power’.

In Discipline and Punish, Foucault argues that this power over bodies is achieved through discipline, both that which is enforced by the state and that which is achieved by formulating citizens who practice self-discipline in line with society.[36] This enforced discipline and formulated self-discipline is created through state institutions such as the education system, the army and hospitals.[37] The outcome of this discipline creates ‘docile bodies’—bodies which ‘may be subjected, used, transformed and improved’.[38] Docility, for Foucault, is what allows for bodies to become ‘useful’ to a capitalist society. In the case of Renton, his body’s place within the ‘machinery of power’ is highlighted by juxtaposing it with that of his two brothers.[39] On one end of the spectrum, we have Renton’s older brother, Billy, who is in the army. Foucault describes the soldier as the epitome of a docile body, both subject to the external discipline of their superiors and practised in heightened self-control over their physical bodies.[40] On the other end of the spectrum is Renton’s younger brother, Davie, whose body is paralysed, only able to blink and swallow. Davie represents the extreme opposite of Billy, completely un-useful and redundant to society; he cannot be ‘used, transformed and improved’. Renton aligns his body with that of Davie’s; he chooses to make his body as effectively un-useful by using heroin, showing both a lack of respect for state discipline and a lack of self-discipline.

Interestingly, though, despite Renton’s disregard for the boundary between life and death, he is the only one of the siblings who is still alive by the end of the novel. This ironic ‘coffin-dodging’ might represent how Renton has, in fact, reclaimed power over his body by using heroin and deliberating rejecting docility.[41] If Renton’s body is un-useful, he should, like Davie, have an early death but if, like Billy, even the most useful bodies in society can also be met with the same fate, Renton can reclaim power by ‘choosing no tae choose life’. He follows up this statement with ‘if the cunts (by which he means the ‘they’ of authority) cannae handle that, it’s their fuckin problem’.[42]In the chapter on Billy’s death, Renton further aligns his body with Davie’s by internally telling the late Billy that ‘I was your other spastic brother’.[43] Here Renton uses the derogatory word ‘spastic’ to describe both Davie, who is handicapped, and himself, who is not. Renton has chosen to disable himself, to become ‘un-useful’ to a capitalist society, and it is this choice over his own body that gives him power. In Renton’s most self-reflective section of narrative, the chapter in which he meets with his counsellor, the word ‘choose’ is repeated numerous times. Renton does not choose death; rather, he chooses not to choose life, and thus the emphasis of choice – the choice to align himself with Davie and be an un-useful body, regardless of life or death – is what allows him to re-claim power over his body in a capitalist society.[44]

In this essay, I have argued that Welsh’s Trainspotting challenges a typical relationship with the body and its place within a capitalist society, using Kristeva’s theory of abjection as ‘typical’ and Foucault’s theories of bio-power and docility to discuss society and the body. Though on the surface Welsh’s explicit descriptions of bodily fluids, death and rebellious adolescent life may seem to only exist to shock and disgust, I hope that by isolating issues specifically related to the body I have proven that such aspects of Trainspotting, in fact, offer a rich psychoanalytic and political reading.

We have seen how the heroin addicts in Trainspotting show a lack of abjection towards their bodies as heroin use causes them to confront their corporeal boundaries and accept the abject within their identity, so that it cannot be ‘opposed to ‘I’’.[45] Not only do the characters show a disregard for any Cartesian divide between the body and the self, but they also show a disregard for the divide between their bodies and exterior technology, and the boundary between life and death, as represented by the corpse. This atypical relationship with the body causes Renton in particular to challenge his body’s place within a capitalist society; he views his body as a ‘territory’ and his heroin addiction, which we are told is caused by his anal expulsive personality, is a way to reclaim this territory from a structure of bio-power. This is achieved through aligning himself with his disabled brother Davie and rejecting a docile body, deliberately becoming un-useful to society and, ultimately, ‘choosing not tae choose life’.[46]



[1] Irvine Welsh, Trainspotting (London: Vintage, 2013); Trainspotting, dir. by Danny Boyle (Channel Four Films, 1996).

[2] Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. by Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia Univerity Press, 1982), pp. 1-5.

[3] Kristeva, p. 1.

[4] Kristeva, p. 4.

[5] Welsh, p. 32.

[6] Welsh, p. 32.

[7] Welsh, pp. 118, 121.

[8] Kristeva, pp. 2-3.

[9] Welsh, p. 121.

[10] Kristeva, p. 2; Welsh, p. 121.

[11] Nicholas Lezard, ‘BOOK REVIEW / Junk and the big trigger; Trainspotting – Irvine Welsh: Secker, 8.99’, Independent, 29 August 1993, p. 28; John Mullan, ‘Low Behaviour: John Mullen on the Role of Morality in Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting’, Guardian, 7 June 2008  <; [accessed 3 April 2016].

[12] Christine L. Harold, ‘The Rhetorical Function of the Abject Body: Transgressive Corporeality in “Trainspotting”’, JAC, 20 (2000), 865–887 (p. 872).

[13] Harold, p. 871.

[14] Harold, p. 872.

[15] Welsh, p. 32.

[16] Welsh, p. 28.

[17] Ibid., pp. 24-28.

[18] Ibid., p. 417.

[19] Kristeva, pp. 12-13.

[20] Kristeva, p. 4.

[21] Kristeva, p. 53.

[22] Welsh, p. 10.

[23] Kevin McCarron, ‘Tattoos and Heroin: A Literary Approach’, Body and Society, 5 (1999), 305-315 (p. 307).

[24] McCarron, p. 310.

[25] Kristeva, p. 1.

[26] Welsh, p. 10.

[27] Welsh, pp. 17, 237.

[28] Welsh, p. 71.

[29] Welsh, p. 72.

[30] Welsh, p. 237.

[31] Michel Foucault, The History of sexuality: An Introduction, trans. by Robert Hurley (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978), p. 141.

[32] Welsh, p. 233.

[33] Kristeva, p. 71.

[34] Kristeva, p. 72.

[35] Ibid., p. 72.

[36] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. by Alan Sheridan (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1991), pp. 135-136.

[37] Discipline and Punish, p. 136.

[38] Ibid., pp. 136-138.

[39] Discipline and Punish, p. 138.

[40] Discipline and Punish, p. 135.

[41] Welsh, p. 17.

[42] Welsh, p. 237.

[43] Ibid., p. 268.

[44] Welsh, p. 268.

[45] Kristeva, p. 1.

[46] Welsh, p. 268.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s