The Anatomy of Disgust


A big thanks to everyone who offered such thoughtful suggestions for additions to my Disgust Bibliography! It's now at over 60 works, most of them book-length, so I'd better get reading. (For those just joining us, I'm doing a long-term project on the literary treatment(s) of disgust, and if you have anything to add to the ever-growing list, I'd be delighted to hear about it.)

In the spirit of getting this show on the road, I'm finally writing up my thoughts on William Ian Miller's 1997 The Anatomy of Disgust. This is the first disgust theory book I've tackled, and it was incredibly helpful in giving me some useful frameworks for my thinking about disgust. While there were a few areas I felt Miller's logic breaks down (for example, in his claim that the sensation of finding someone or something cute necessarily involves having contempt for that being), all in all it was very worthwhile. For the rest of this post, rather than critique Miller per se, I think I'll focus on recording the elements of his argument that I think most likely to be helpful to me in the future.

So, first of all, Miller agrees with pretty much every other source I've researched in putting together the bibliography, that disgust developed as a way to police the boundary between "safe" and "contaminating" states. At the most basic level this means that the feeling of disgust prevents us from eating and coming into contact with things that might contaminate us—eating rotting food, for example, or touching someone's running sores. Unsurprisingly, although the exact set of disgusting objects varies cross-culturally and with the individual, there are certain things that are pretty much universally disgusting, and others that show a strong tendency to disgust across cultures. Miller spends a large part of his opening chapters breaking down some general cross-cultural trends as far as categories of things we're likely to find gross: viscous things are generally more disgusting than solid or liquid things; tepid things more disgusting than hot or cold; wet things more disgusting than dry; organic more disgusting than inorganic; animal more disgusting than plant; many more disgusting than few, and so on. Again, there may be exceptions to all of these rules, but in general the more disgusting qualities are connected with what Miller calls "life soup": the writhing sites of generation and decomposition, birth and death. In his view these states are disgusting, "Not because all ends in death, but because there is no fixed point. [...] there is too much flux for fixed structures to get a grip on all the turmoil."

Perhaps inevitably, the direct physical variety of disgust long ago spread into the moral realm. As illustrated in Orhan Pamuk's Snow, disgust often manifests when we're confronted with other people who we perceive to be members of a "them" category: "they" are nearly always more disgusting than "us," especially if "they" are perceived as coming from a lower social position. Miller spends a lot of time dissecting this very rich set of issues: traditionally, women have been disgusting to men, Jews to Christians, the sick to the healthy, the poor to the rich, and so on. In a fascinating section on the medieval European Christian disgust toward both Jews and lepers, Miller writes

But one might distinguish a difference of emphasis between the disgusts and styles of loathing prompted by Jews and those prompted by lepers. More than lepers, who were associated with rotting flesh and cadavers, Jews were associated with excrement and menstrual blood. Such was the Christian demonization of the Jew—and the uncomprehending Christian horror of circumcision—that the Jewish male was believed to menstruate. Jewish men were thus feminized and all women were thus Judaized to make both more disgusting, more dangerous than they had been before. Without pushing the distinction too far one might notice that physical disgust at appalling sights and odors of lepers led to a belief in their moral loathsomeness; whereas the Jew's assumed moral loathsomeness led to a belief that his body must then be as disfigured as his soul.

This kind of "othering" disgust, which is a presumptive yet still hugely visceral combination of moral and physical disgust, presents some serious ethical problems. The presence of disgust is often processed as proof that the disgusting object is inherently wrong or objectionable—in the minds of the medieval Christians, Jews were objectively disgusting, both physically and morally. (Indeed, as Miller points out, Christian culture often found Jews more disgusting than lepers: although those aspiring to sainthood would willingly expose themselves to leprosy in order to mortify their flesh, there are no records of anyone converting to Judaism as self-flagellation.) This anti-Semitic disgust seemed to them just as rooted in reality as their disgust at leprosy, although from a modern perspective it seems clear evidence of religious bigotry.

Disgust is thus a persuasive yet unreliable witness. Not only does it suggest to us that the physically deformed or ill must also be morally flawed; it can actually elicit a visceral feeling of repulsion in us for someone "contaminated" with various kinds of otherness. And more than most other emotions, like love or jealousy, it seems to present us with objective fact about the object that disgusts us. Witnessing something disgusting, the temptation is strong to believe anyone would find that object similarly repulsive—yet in many cases, that assumption is unfounded. Miller writes:

The avowal of disgust expects concurrence. It carries with it the notion of its own indisputability, and part of this indisputability depends upon the fact that disgust is processed so particularly via offense to the senses. It argues for the visibility, the palpability, the concreteness, the sheer obviousness of the claim. Disgust poses less of a problem for intersubjectivity than perhaps any other emotion.

That is, it is easy for an outsider to imagine what we mean when we say we are disgusted. However, the claim to "sheer obviousness" does pose a problem when, for example, a person who finds menstrual blood infinitely more disgusting than feces, extrapolates this feeling into a universal claim that everyone shares this hierarchy of disgust-feeling (as Freud does in Civilization and its Discontents, following his traditional practice of not consulting any women before drawing his conclusions). The "sheer obviousness" aspect of disgust feelings are also a problem when the feeling of disgust is used as a rationale for justifying oppression, as in the example of the medieval Christians and Jews, or the more modern-day example of those who oppose allowing homosexuals to serve openly in the military, because the heterosexual servicepeople may find the idea of homosexuality disgusting. To those feeling the disgust in these cases, it seems like evidence of an obvious fact—because the person in question causes me to feel disgust, there must be something wrong with them. Such is not necessarily the case, yet a visceral disgust is a difficult hurdle to overcome. Miller argues, in fact, that the dehumanizing and ostensibly self-evident qualities of our experience of disgust present ongoing challenges to our democratic ideals.

One more theoretical construct offered by Miller promises to be particularly useful: he breaks down disgust into two basic types, the disgust of repression and the disgust of surfeit. Most attention, he claims, has been paid to the former. Freud and his followers explain disgust as a "reaction formation" in which our unconscious desires (leftovers from earlier stages of our evolution from animals to humans) are repressed, and the feeling of disgust is a mental roadblock convincing us that what our unconscious mind finds attractive is actually repulsive. Freud being Freud, most of these forbidden activities are sexual in nature, and our initial disgust actually functions to build tension so that we experience greater release and pleasure upon finally overcoming these mental barriers. The foul is revealed to be fair. In this type of disgust, we are initially revolted, but that revulsion is often coupled with emotions of attraction as well: fascination, curiosity, and so on, which draw us forward even as our aversion is pushing us back. On the flipside, the disgust of surfeit—the feeling following overindulgence in greasy or sugary food, alcohol, or similar—reveals something that initially seemed fair, to in fact be foul. In this type of disgust there is no push-and-pull; the source of the satiation appears utterly unattractive until the effects of the overindulgence have worn off, and all we want is to have it removed from our presence. There is a neat and appealing symmetry between these two types of disgust—perhaps too neat, but one I'll definitely keep in mind as I progress through the project.


  • Huh, I've been aware of the feminization of Jewish men in the bigoted consciousness before, but I'd never heard that specific thing about Jews, women, and menstruation...very interesting! This is a really cool project you're working on, and I'm sure you'll do something wonderful with all your research :)

    • Thanks, Emily Jane. The section on the intersection of medieval saints, lepers, and Jews was particularly fascinating. I haven't even added volumes of straight history to the disgust bibliography, but it would obviously be easy to!

  • Fascinating post! I remember reading Martha Nussbaum saying that disgust could not be used as a factor in deciding law, precisely because it comes from such a suspect place in the psyche. Although in earlier times it WAS often used because it has such a powerful effect and unites communities over what is right and wrong.

    You have a real talent for making what might be dry and theoretical really lively and engaging, Emily!

    • Wow — so interesting! It seems like in the political sphere, no one's hands are entirely clean (if you'll excuse the pun) when it comes to employing disgust's morally galvanizing properties; making all efforts to exclude disgust's influence from legal decisions really seems like the Right Thing To Do.

      I wonder if there's a proportional relationship between how far a person is from "center," politically, and how willing they are to play the disgust card.

      Or maybe a more accurate way to look at it would be, a relationship between how far they are from empathizing with their political opponents, and how much disgust that allows them to feel towards those opponents.

      But, I don't know; maybe it's more down to personal style...

      In any case, it's all very interesting! I agree, litlove, Emily's got something special. :)

      • I'm blushin' ova heah! ;-)

        There is that interesting Cornell study indicating that political conservatives are more likely to feel disgust for a wide range of things. I don't know if that would correlate to using a greater "rhetoric of disgust" when they're trying to convince other people of their opinions. Like you say, it seems like EVERYONE on the political spectrum declares themselves "disgusted" about this or that.

    • Thanks for the nice words, Litlove! When you recommended the Nussbaum I didn't immediately see the connection between disgust and the law, but I'm starting to see how the moral dilemmas it raises would be particularly difficult to navigate for lawyers & legislators. I'm now looking forward to starting her book.

  • This was really interesting! I can't say that I have thought much about disgust beyond it being a defense mechanism to keep us from eating or doing things that will cause us harm. Clearly there is much more to it than that. What a fascinating project you have landed on!

  • This is fascinating, your comments and the whole Disgust project. I'll undoubtedly have more to say on the subject in the future. I read this post on a train a couple of hours ago, oddly enough the comment that stuck with me is "his claim that the sensation of finding someone or something cute necessarily involves having contempt for that being."

    That is curiously interesting, enough to make me want to read the book. Has the definition of cute changed? I know that generally these days it is considered complimentary, but I remember a time when it wasn't. It was considered damning with faint praise, a little like calling someone sweet, inherently patronising.

    • Anthony, the cute/contempt thing is an odd claim, so I can see how it would stick with you. You've hit the nail on the head re: "cute"'s patronizing overtones, and I would completely agree that if, for example, a coworker called me "cute," that would show contempt. I can even see Miller's argument within a generally respectful romantic or other relationship between equals, that there may be moments when one person finds the other "cute" or "adorable" and that in those moments, a bit of contempt is making its way into the emotions of that person.

      But Miller takes the argument even farther, and argues that when we find puppies and babies cute—beings that make no claim to be our equals, in other words—we are showing contempt for them. That just doesn't make sense to me. I find my dog cute and I also respect him for his dogginess. I don't feel contemptuous toward him because he can't discuss Byron with me, you know? A baby is doing really important and difficult work when it learns to roll onto its stomach or match square pegs with square holes, and even though those things are easy for me, I don't feel contempt for the baby's stage of development. It's just different than mine. In my view a show of contempt requires some claim to equality or at least peer-hood on the part of the contempt's recipient.

      • The argument does seem to break down at that point, is the argument that calling a baby or puppy is cute displays contempt for its parent or owner? I could begin to comprehend that position.

        • Well, that's certainly not how I read it. (But also, I don't think I would agree even if that were his intention. When I meet another dog owner and we both exclaim over the cuteness of the other person's dog, I sincerely feel there is no contempt in the case, on either side.)

          Anyway, here's one of the passages in question:

          Not only are love and contempt not antithetical but certain loves seem to be necessarily intermingled with contempt. What is the judgment that some persons or animals are cute but a judgment of their endearing subordinance and unthreateningness? We love our pets and our children and we find them cute and adorable. [...] Where there are rankings there is contempt doing the work of maintaining them. I do not mean my claim of the unavoidable mingling of contempt and some genuine kinds of love to be all that contentious, yet it is just the kind of claim that will elicit resistance. [...] Why not admit that helplessness and need may be elicitors of love as much as strength and autonomy? Perhaps one of the most adaptive traits of humanity is that we find some kinds of helplessness endearing, or feel that it raises a duty in us to help and succor. How else do parents bond to their infants no matter how colicky or obnoxious they may be, whether related by blood or adoption? Contempt is more than just a sneer of hostility.

          So again, it's not that I disagree with the point that "helplessness and need may be elicitors of love," or that this is adaptive, or that having these feelings about a peer involves some level of benign contempt, but having those feelings about a baby does not seem to me to imply contempt. I mean, babies and puppies just ARE subordinate and unthreatening, and finding them so is not contempt but simple realism.

  • Like Anthony, I too was struck by the "cute" claim. My assumption was that it had to do with the fact that "cuteness" is an attribute of entities like puppies, children, etc.--i.e., not of one's equals. I can see it, sort of, but I would take issue.

    I'm so pleased at what a good start you seem to be off to on this project. Selfishly, of course! I was also thinking...have you looked at Jonathan Haidt's work on moral political psychology? I feel like maybe someone mentioned him on another thread, but maybe without knowing the name. It's a bit tangential to what you're really up to, but related, and you may find it interesting.

    • Nicole, see my response to Anthony above—you're exactly right about why Miller argues "cute" implies contempt, but he extends it even to children and puppies themselves, which I think is where his argument breaks down.

      And thanks for the encouragement on the project! Haidt's work hasn't been on my radar, but I'll check him out. :-)

  • This is a great overview -- thank you! The ideas about how we universalize our feelings of disgust and how that can have political consequences are really interesting. I've been aware of how some people argue that homosexuality, for example, is wrong because it's clearly "disgusting," but I hadn't quite thought about the whole process of assuming everyone else is like you and how this assumption can be a problem to democratic ideals. Fascinating!

    • Yes, and another example I just thought of from the other side of the political spectrum is how animal-rights activists often make "it's disgusting" a tenet of their anti-fur or anti-meat campaigns. The impulse is so strong and (to the arguer) convincing, it's hard to avoid. Glad you enjoyed this, Dorothy!

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography