November 11, 2013, by criticalmoment

The Politics and Poetics of Disgust

As it is already at the half way point, I thought it worth sharing a brief write up of the study group the Centre for Critical Theory is currently offering at the Nottingham Contemporary. We’ve called it ‘The Politics and Poetics of Disgust’, although ‘Analysing All Things Icky’ would have worked too. Disgust is a theme artists and theorists alike have long been attracted to, and it turns out the same goes for visitors to the Contemporary: it has been so popular that plans are already afoot for ‘Disgust Number 2’ (if you’ll excuse the inexcusable pun).

So what have we been looking at? Our first session drew heavily on psychoanalytic theory to explore the relationship between disgust-reactions and the sense of a stable, bounded self.  I set just two readings, one by the psychotherapist Susan B. Miller who has done interesting work on related emotions such as shame and anger, and the other by the literary and cultural theorist and psychoanalyst surely unavoidable on this topic, Julia Kristeva. Miller calls disgust a ‘gatekeeper emotion’, immediately capturing a consistent theme in the literature that centres on the affective policing of liminal substances and states that threaten boundaries. Disgust keeps out what we don’t want coming in, Miller argues, less because of whatever the disgusting thing is, and more because of the way it challenges our sense of egoic and bodily integrity. She offers a useful taxonomy of disgust, breaking it down into ‘full’, ‘partial’ and ‘borrowed’ forms, and linking these to a hierarchy of the senses: taste, smell and touch trigger repulsion more readily than sight and sound, presumably because of their more immediate connection to corporeal contact. Miller also posed interesting questions for the group concerning the possible biological basis of the disgust-reaction (is it linked, for example, to fear-responses developed over millennia of our evolution?) versus more cultural and symbolic explanations having to do with personal experience and social setting. Could it be a combination of the two? Kristeva was much harder going, largely because she makes such heavy weather of a developmental, and at times quite Kleinian, reading of Freudian theory (which makes the Lacanian in me bristle somewhat). Kristeva seems to want to get to a more primordial, pre-social therefore seemingly universalisable mechanism of abjection that constitutes the earliest outlines of pre-Oedipal selfhood by means of a kind of spitting out of the Mother’s body. She too emphasises disgust as a discomfiting experience of liminality, but unlike Miller, she also makes some grand claims regarding modernist literature as a deliberate aesthetic of abjection, discernible, for her, in writers like Dostoevsky, Proust, Joyce and Artaud. Those familiar with her argument in Revolution in Poetic Language will know that Kristeva ascribes to poetic subversion a radical political promise we might not find terribly convincing today. Alongside all this high-falutin theory however, the group found plenty of time to swap anecdotes about our poo-related experiences!

Last week’s second session pushed the focus on the self to the socio-political level. The texts Tracey shared with us conveyed a sense of the ways in which disgust can be mobilised to shore up and police exclusive group identities at a very subtle, below-the-radar level of the everyday. This was movingly illustrated by a brief text from the African-American feminist Audre Lourd: among Lourd’s many examples of wordless forms of racism was her childhood experience of buying a drink with a white friend and noticing that, while her friend was given a standard glass, her black hand was forced to close around a disposable paper cup … Three other pieces gave a historical context for Lourd’s experience of being interpolated as disgusting or contaminating. An excerpt from Mary Douglas’ seminal Purity and Danger helped us to see how the disciplines of anthropology and then sociology in the latter half of the nineteenth century conceptualised a stark distinction between the purification rituals surrounding taboos in so-called ‘primitive societies’ (said to be based on crude ‘magical thinking’), and the structures of institutionalised religion in ‘civilized’ Europe. Douglas’ approach helped us grasp the racialization of ‘progress’ in the European imperial project, with disgust, again, as an affective marker of politicized difference. Such markers have by no means left us, political correctness notwithstanding. Iris Marion Young’s piece then gave the long-view on this political mobilisation of disgust: from the stoic and then Cartesian philosophical tradition which separates the mind and the body (figuring the former as clean, rational and masculine, the latter as dirty, porous and feminine), to the emergence of a specifically bourgeois sensibility that both allowed white, male bourgeois privilege to remain unmarked precisely through its universalisation, and culturally sanctioned disgust-reactions to the various avatars of that sensibility’s other (so women, the disabled, the black or brown, the old, the disabled etc.). As a legal theorist, Young posed for us the tricky question of just how law can hope to legislate for the often unconscious, infra-ordinary forms of sexism, racisms, ageism and ableism that persist long after more obvious discursive prejudices have received legal sanctions. Finally, a chapter by Stallybrass and White echoed Young’s history of the rise of bourgeois respectability that gives to disgust its sexed, gendered and classed politics, but came at it from another angle. They focussed on two intertwined processes: on the one hand, the legislative taming and commodification of what was once Rabelaisian carnival in the modern form of licenced, localised wakes and fairs and ‘pre-packaged’ tourist experiences; but on the other, the return of this repressed carnivalesque enjoyment in pathological forms, specifically in the hysterics that Charcot, Freud and others worked with in fin-de-siècle Europe. The group acknowledged that these texts needed updating to account for the emergence of networked consumer capitalism in the 1990s, but also that one important way to do this would be to focus our critical attention on contemporary symptoms (for psychiatry at least, neurasthenia and hysteria supposedly disappered in the first few decades of the nineteenth century, but especially for psychiatry, they were replaced by an epidemic of new disorders).

The penultimate session of the study group, meeting on the 21st of November, will concentrate all of these issues around the domestic interior, and changing attitudes to what counts as dirt and hygiene in the contemporary home. Arguably, the prevalence of reality TV programmes about obsessive compulsive disorders and hoarding suggests that consumerism is medicalizing the waste it itself generates. Following the approaches of Young and Stallybrass and White, we will continue to think about this in relation to taste and class distinction. Our final session on the 5th of December will be led by Katie Jones from the French Department who will direct our attention once again to the question of art and calculated aesthetics of disgust in primarily literary works. Does art have the power to create aesthetic experiences that can lead us to reconfigure the boundaries between what we find acceptable and what we violently reject? Or does disgust just have marketable shock-value?

We look forward to continuing this theme in the new year, when the Nottingham Contemporary has kindly facilitated another set of study sessions which we intend to integrate as much as possible with the exhibition of Tala Madani’s work which will then be showing. Watch this blog for alerts about that!

Best Wishes,


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