Here's an interesting little side-note to my ongoing disgust project: how to design a cover for a book about disgust? As I've been gathering together texts for the project, it's occurred to me that a designer working on a cover for a disgust book faces what could be a unique challenge: to communicate the content of the book by evoking disgust, while at the same time making the cover aesthetically appealing enough that a reader will actually pick the book up, rather than turning away in revulsion. It seems to me that no other emotion is by definition quite so difficult to reconcile with an advertising-style consumer appeal. Anyway, I thought it might be fun to look at a few different solutions to this dilemma.
Solution #1: Instead of showing the disgusting object, show a person feeling disgust. It's an easy emotion to recognize, since, as both William Ian Miller and Robert Rawdon Wilson point out, "disgust face" (wrinkled nose, drawn-back top lip, extended tongue) seems to be pretty universal, even cross-culturally. I think it's interesting that in both these cases, the look and the disgusted person are themselves clean and inoffensive. The bodies portrayed are young, white, slender, and privileged (the man is wearing a suit) with not too much hair in the frame and skin that appears smooth and matte. The monochrome treatment of the photographs reduces their visceral quality—particularly that of the tongue on the Menninghaus cover, which is further neutralized by having the book's subtitle plastered over it. The monochrome also gives a faintly retro feel, especially to the man on the cover of the Kelly book. Both are without any specific visual background for context, which further reduces their immediacy.
In the Kelly image, the man seems to be disgusted at a glass of water or other clear liquid. We can imagine that he took a swig of gin when expecting water, or that he has added a few drops of foul-tasting medicine to his drink, but in general clear water is one of the least contaminating substances around. Whatever the man's source of disgust with his water glass, it's unlikely to infect the viewer.
I'd like to add that although I find both of these particular examples a bit "blah," inoffensive but not particularly appealing, there's no reason the "disgust face" cover couldn't be more striking if executed differently.
Solution #2: Portray the author, not the subject. Also used for plenty of Freud covers. Julia Kristeva may have written about the psychology of disgust and horror at the separation of mother from infant, but you can't tell by looking at her photograph, which depicts an earnest, thin, clean-looking white lady engaging in what appears to be thoughtful conversation, her mouth picturesquely forming a word and her head resting gently on her hand. The image of Kant communicates even less about him: a pensive eighteenth-century white gentleman with an emphasized cranium—the seat of both "judgment" and "critique," presumably. I'm guessing that the strongest attractive trait of a cover like this, is that anyone looking at the book will know that one is reading Kristeva, Freud, or Kant: bragging rights, in other words. (Although in the case of the Dover edition, we all know the most attractive thing about them is how delightfully affordable they are, which makes the lack of appealing covers pretty much beside the point.) Otherwise, these covers are fairly bland and communicate little about the themes or ideas addressed.
Solution #3: Depict an object that could be disgusting, but in such an aesthetically appealing way that the attraction overcomes the repulsion. This is obviously a more subjective and riskier option, since the tipping point between aversion and attraction will be different for different people. Personally, though, both of these covers work well for me. They both communicate something about the content of the books, which in both cases has to do directly with unpleasant emotions including disgust; at the same time, they're both visually interesting and appealing enough to attract my interest even if I didn't know their subject matter. Unlike the covers we've looked at so far, these both use rich, bold color schemes and lettering that's integrated with the images. Unlike the covers above, they both portray objects that could actually be considered disgusting: a warty, tentacle-laden frog for the Korsmeyer, and a whole collection of deformed bodies (frog-headed man, woman with a body made up of tiny monsters) for the Ngai. Since it's a bit difficult to make out what's going on with the Ngai cover, here's a larger version:
I think this is actually quite disturbing! The humpy little four-legged beasts with human faces that make up the lower part of the woman's body and also mass across the bottom of the cover, violating the neat boundary between the green outer frame and the cream inner rectangle, are particularly grotesque, and their vast number only makes them more so. Malfunctioning and/or deformed bodies are traditionally a potent source of disgust, especially, as in the example of the little monster biting the toad-man's leg, when the boundaries between bodies are breached.
Yet both these covers manage to be (I think) aesthetically appealing overall—and they use some of the same tricks as the previous covers we've seen. Both reduce the visceral quality of the disgusting objects by evoking an antique (Korsemeyer) or retro (Ngai) feeling, whether by evoking classic biology texts with the line-drawing style of the frog, or by gesturing toward the fashions of bygone eras with the hat, coat, and hairstyle of the gun-wielding woman. The use of color, too, echoes that in the previous covers: the warts and tentacles on the Korsmeyer frog are rendered less visceral by being shown in two-tone green-on-green, and the unified olives, creams, and browns of the Ngai cover make the scene depicted less jarring. Both the gesture toward the old-fashioned and the flattening into simple, pleasing color schemes have the effect of distancing the viewer from the possible source of disgust—and any extra distance decreases the sense of threat and contamination that goes with disgust. These covers remind us we're looking at a representation rather than an in-the-world disgusting object, which allows us to appreciate them from an aesthetic point of view.
Solution #4: Depict a non-disgusting aspect of the object of disgust. Both of these covers depict directly the object of disgust (the working, unwashed poor in the case of Orwell; the mythological Hydra in the case of Wilson), but they choose to portray a non-disgusting or less disgusting view of those objects. The poor folks on the Orwell cover look tired and dirty, but they are seen in the cleansing outdoors rather than inside their contaminated hovels, and their bodies are encased in long coats, decreasing their contact with the viewer. Certainly there is nothing in this cover to suggest the scenes of filth, food, and stench that so troubled Orwell (his host, for example, serves him bread with a thumb blackened from emptying chamber pots). Likewise, Wilson in his book discusses how the Hydra is an excellent symbol of disgust because of the decay and stench it leaves in its very footsteps; yet what is depicted here is several heads, not the rot and decay associated with it. Both many-headedness and the dirt of poverty could potentially be disgusting, less so than other facets of the same objects. What's more, these particular depictions don't push for the disgust reaction: the hydra's heads, for example, are shown upright and separated from one another, rather than slithering in an undifferentiated mass, and the design's lettering comes between the heads and the viewer.
Solution #5: Go ahead and depict the unattractive object even though it may alienate readers. In ways I think this is the most honest solution to the whole problem of covering disgust, and particularly appropriate for Nussbaum's book, since she is arguing (as I understand it; I have yet to read this) that allowing ourselves to be ruled by our feelings of shame and disgust is morally suspect and philosophically unsound. What's more, the person depicted is not particularly repulsive—merely a nude white lady whose body, with its dark under-eye patches, pendulous breasts and mild degree of flab, does not conform to social ideals of beauty. As almost all of us similarly fail to conform to beauty standards, Nussbaum's cover suggests one problem with allowing ourselves to act on our disgust for this woman: namely, that we are setting ourselves up to be objects of disgust in turn, and that almost everyone would receive the same treatment in this woman's place. Since Nussbaum is making a moral argument for confronting our assumptions about what it means to feel disgust, and what conclusions we can and cannot draw based on that feeling, I think this is a fairly representative cover, despite its lack of aesthetic appeal.
Solution #6: Gesture toward the idea of contamination directly, rather than depicting an object. I think this cover is so clever: rather than working to reassure the viewer that she is seeing a representation rather than an in-the-world disgust object, it breaks down the "fourth wall" and creates the illusion that the corner of this pristine grey-on-white book has been soiled. The viewer/reader's emotions in the moments before she realizes the illusion might run the gamut from disappointment and frustration to judgment and revulsion—which range is a pretty good representation of our reactions to "filth" in the world more generally. Although I haven't read this yet, I can imagine that having this little experience before I ever pick up the book, might be a more accurate preview of what I'll find inside than most covers can provide. At the same time, the suggestion of unspecified dirt on the cover is not extreme enough to deter most readers from picking up the book, especially as the rest of the layout is appealingly clean and minimalist.
What did I miss? Do any other disgust-related covers leap out at you? I was surprised at the degree to which analyzing these covers brought up many of the issues I've been reading about in the actual texts!