Miller, William Ian Entries

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.

June 2012

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography