7.07.2007

Disgust and its neighbors

I've been thinking about "disgust." Largely thats because it's something I feel rather frequently, especially in New York-- in summer. But I try not to dwell on my particular triggers. Instead I wanted to know more about the nature of disgust-- a visceral sensation, and a particularly loaded state of being. Its something that is felt bodily and mentally, and (dangerously) it can take on moral overtones. Luckily, I found the perfect primer on the subject, The Anatomy of Disgust by Michael Ian Miller (from which I took the title of this post; some of the "neighbors"being contempt, outrage, revulsion, indignation). He literally parses the term and shows why it is a surprisingly important albeit contentious concept. He says that while the content of the disgusting and the threshold of disgust varies across different societies, the concept of Culture,
"strikes us as inconceivable without disgust playing some role in its construction... To feel disgust is human and humanizing. [Those who are insensitive to disgust] belong to somewhat different categories: protohuman like children, subhuman like the mad, or suprahuman like saints."
Miller posits that disgust, rather than being anti-social, "has powerful communalizing capacities" and can help to build moral social community (grossly, 'us' versus 'them'). Intriguingly, though disgust can appear to come from a stance of superiority, it necessarily brings with it a fear and insecurity -- of contagion, of threat to order. Because of the strong feelings it elicits (mental threat and physical revulsion) it can provoke outsized reactions/retaliations that are in themselves "disgusting."

Miller also argues that a less volatile cousin of disgust, contempt, is a useful, even necessary, aspect in a democratic society-- as long as its reciprocal. (I really like this guy.) The notion is that the "lower classes" gained some kind of societal stance, some sense of 'power' when they were able to experience (and subtly express) a certain contempt toward the 'nobility' or their supposed superiors...

Addendum: etymology of "disgust": The word enters into English, from French, in the early 17th century--as Miller points out, Shakespeare had no such word. Its literal derivation means "distaste"–with regard to ingestion. He points out, though, that at the time the word appears, concern with taste–with regard to refinement and discernment-- is increasingly prevalent. Discernment and the ability to recognize and reject vulgarity is intertwined with the "civilizing process" and the contemporary rise of propriety and privacy. Then that brings about the exquisite proliferation of issues of embarrassment, guilt, and a whole psychological theater of darkness...

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The two images at top are from Freaks, Geeks & Strange Girls: Sideshow Banners of the Great American Midway, neither of which I find disgusting in the least. But they do bring up this point: what happens when what at one time was considered freakish or disgusting or marginal becomes unremarkable? What happens when what is "normal" shifts–when the boundary that delineates "us" from "them" moves?

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Well yes....us and them...summertime disgust abounds on these streets of New York...I now know that I am not alone in this sweltering topic....too much flesh....and the voices that accompany it....ah blessed blogger...thanks for a bit of company on this steamy topic of disgust and its neighbors

Carol said...

Perhaps one must be as ancient as I am to realize how much that was once considered disgusting and generally unmentionable (e.g.some films of John Waters), is acceptable today. The trend is alarming.

Anonymous said...

It is extremely interesting for me to read the post. Thanx for it. I like such topics and everything connected to this matter. I would like to read more on that blog soon.

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