In thinking counter-hegemonic disgust

Heidi Kosonen

In the first episode of HBO’s science fiction television series Westworld (2016), dealing with the uprising of non-human-machines waking to consciousness, a disgust-reaction towards a house fly marks the awakening consciousness of the android “host”, a monstrous creature in its human-non-human hybridity. In the beginning of the episode, the android character Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), the oldest and sweetest of them all, does not mind the fly walking on her face; yet at the end of the episode, she instinctively slaps the insect dead against her neck. She has been programmed to please, and her sudden aggression towards the harmless creature proposes a developed sense of borders pertinent to disgust, and a need to protect the skin and its orifices as a border between one’s own self and the ”contaminating filth” of the world. Her reaction against the insect also anticipates the androids’ violent revolt against the system that oppresses them.

The emotion disgust has been connected to animal defence mechanisms towards such dangers that threaten a being with death, intoxication, infectious diseases and decay (e.g. Kolnai 1929). Yet the visceral emotion has been recognized for its moral, political and symbolic qualities that blur this association to danger and reveal the base emotion’s culturally constructed nature and its instrumentalization. The borders disgust protects can also be abstract ones, such as those of nation states or those constituting the imagined ideal humanity, separating selves from others and “us” from “them”.

Starting from Aurel Kolnai’s pioneering work on disgust (1929), scholars have also recognized disgust’s relationship to collectively agreed values that the expressions of the base emotion seek to protect and studied disgust as a moral emotion necessary to the social collective. In his argument against cloning, bioethicist Leon Kass (1997) coins the term “the wisdom of repugnance” and argues that disgust conveys instinctual knowledge against that which lacks goodness or wisdom. In this sense he sees disgust to indicate towards boundaries that we should not cross: boundaries that, morally, ought to be held onto and protected.

Dangerous in arguments like the aforementioned is that the borders and the entities that disgust protects as essentially good, wise or pure are culturally constructed and hegemonic. Moreover, as Robert Rawdon Wilson (2002) and Ian Miller recognize (1997), repugnance and its expressions often punch downwards towards those who have been rendered lower in the social ladder or denied existence and livable lives. The encounter between a white woman and a black child in Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider (1984), that Sara Ahmed reads in her Cultural Politics of Emotion (2014, p. 53, 84) is an evocative illustration of the power of the power-holding to define something as disgusting and to express their repugnance toward it. In the android’s reaction against the house fly in Westworld the dangers of essentializing disgust as a moral reaction come visible: the insect, rendered powerless in comparative size, irritates and represents filth but does no harm, and it is merely its tickling feet, causing a quick feeling of revolt in the android, that justify it’s treatment with deadly violence.

In the real world, responses like these are even cultivated. in human history disgust has over and over been encountered in xenophobic, misogynistic and trans- and homophobic functions. In two high-profile occasions, the Rwandan genocide saw tutsis dehumanized and named cockroaches to justify their killing, as artists Laura Gustaffson and Terike Haapoja point out in their activist art installation Museum of Nonhumanity (2016), and in Hillary Clinton’s campaign for presidency the opposers sought to defamate her by connecting the female politician to taboo bodily functions and reducing her to her menstruating body, as Martha Nussbaum discusses in Monarchy of Fear (2017).

In instances like these, the disgustingness of a group of people or a political enemy is enhanced through their association to “disgusts-objects” of varied sorts — disgust-evoking insects, disease, the decaying body, cultural taboos —  in Ahmed’s “sticky” chains of representation. Also in 2020 such “revolting tactics” have been witnessed on several high-profile occasions. A recent example of the use of disgust in conservative political rhetoric comes from a Finnish Party Perussuomalaiset (The Finns Party; previously called True Finns) 420-page manifesto, marketed as an academic survey published in June. In the manifesto, heinous language expressing and seeking to arouse disgust is used in accusing feminism and feminists for the increase of several sexual behaviors, seen as cultural taboos and condemned by the public.

More globally, tracing the origins of the global covid19-pandemic to a Beijing wholesale market sparked a demonizing discussion of Chinese food customs, perceived as disgusting and unethical, and visualized in the news illustrations as evocative images of putrescent meat and dangerous animals in unsavourable heaps. The blaming of Chinese food customs for the pandemic can be seen to have responded to the original suspicions tracing the virus to Norwegian salmon, a Western delicacy, and to have bypassed a more common discussion of the ethics of meat-eating customs also in the Occident. Subsequently, as Black and Asian individuals have been witnessing a higher mortality rate for the virus, ”racial genetics” instead of the effects of structural racism has offered explanations for these deaths in the public discussions, which has also led to further racist measures in the virus’s containment.

The maintenance of the status quo and the defamation of the political rival through instrumentalized disgust has been common to populist, conservative and majoritarian instances, and in several studies sensitivity to disgust has been related to conservative values and majoritarianism, due to their higher concern with “purity” and “order. Thus, in her afterword to Ugly Feelings Sianne Ngai (2004) enquiries for the possibility of liberal or minoritarian instances instrumentalizing moral disgust as a way of resistance. The central paradox in counter-cultural disgust is surely this: Could such individuals, who celebrate or represent such forms of life that have been expelled from the majoritarians’ taboo-ruled categories, reiterate the disgust-driven rhetorics of those, who wish to deny equal rights from anything that does not fit their tight conceptions and order of things? Their ”upward contempt” (Miller 1997) is devoid of the historical and sticky genealogies that make the majoritarian’s emotion so powerful, and their “disgust-ability” is easily paired with the awareness of the constructed nature of disgust and knowledge of what being rendered disgusting feels like.

Yet no doubt, in encountering The Finns Party’s hateful text I feel repulsed, both as a woman-identified individual concerned about human rights and as an academic wishing to protect the image of science against these hateful and harmful opinions (although in some of its aspects academia also represents patriarchal and colonial oppression to me). I also feel disgust in watching the images of the poached animals going to waste in the Chinese food market, although I detest the scapegoating of the “oriental other” and recognize my emotion’s relationship to my worldview, against the essentialization of disgust in to the “wisdom of repugnance” arguments. Moral disgust and a will to protect the purity of things I hold dear thus live in me too, a liberal academic and a monstrous being in the several nodes where I do not fit the prevailing categories and demands for purity. The endorsement of the repulsive nature of these topics, misogyny, racism and the use of non-human animals, is also strong enough in the current moment for me to express my disgust, if I so wished.

Another question is whether I should instrumentalize this emotion: if making disgust my countercultural weapon against the hegemonic politics of hate and disgust would help? In thinking of, in particular, disgust’s psycho-moral qualities it has been my recurring thought, that in feeling disgust I reject from myself that which I do not want to be or want to become. In this, it is an emotion that seeks to expel such qualities from myself that I know to cause harm to others, an emotion building borders between myself and such phenomena I do not wish to embrace, but also — out of necessity, even if temporarily — between myself and the others who embrace them, or represent that which I do not want to be. In Nussbaum’s book (2017) the ability to coexist with people holding contrary views and leading different lives is gained through transforming negative emotions like rage, envy and fear into hope without denying these emotions. In thinking of instrumentalizing my disgust, unaccustomed to doing so, I am thinking of in what ways my disgust would stick to the ones whose behavior repulses me; if in voicing my disgust I was able to distinguish “the insect” from what it represents and substitutes for, unlike the newly-awakened android in Westworld.


** Remember to also listen to our Monster Talks podcast on disgust  featuring Heidi Kosonen!



Heidi S. Kosonen is a visual cultural researcher and a co-founder of the Jyväskylä-based Disgust Network. In her doctoral dissertation (to-be-defended fall 2020) Kosonen studies biopower and taboo in the context of Anglophone suicide cinema. Kosonen is perpetually  interested in all things affective and obscene. She sometimes writes a research blog.


Works cited

Ahmed, Sara. (2004). The Cultural Politics of Emotion (reprint 2014). New York: Routledge.

Kass, Leon R. (1997) “The wisdom of repugnance: why we should ban the cloning of humans.” New Republic June 2 1997; 216(22):17-26:

Kolnai, Aurel (2004). “Disgust” in On Disgust: Edited and with an introduction by Barry Smith and Carolyn Korsmeyer. Chicago: Open Court.

Miller, William Ian (1997). The Anatomy of Disgust. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Ngai, Sianne (2004). Ugly Feelings. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Nussbaum, Martha C. (2017). The Monarchy of Fear: A Philosopher Looks at Our Political Crisis. London: Simon & Schuster.

Wilson, Robert Rawdon (2002). The Hydra’s Tale: Imagining Disgust. Edmonton: Alberta University Press.


Monster Talks 7: Disgust



How is disgust defined? How is it related to, for example, the sublime (and awe), cuteness, or taboos? And can disgust be a source of hope? 

Dr. Aino-Kaisa Koistinen from the Monster Network discusses all things disgusting with Doctoral researcher Heidi Kosonen and PhD, Postdoctoral researcher Susanne Ylönen (both from the Department of Music, Art and Culture Studies, University of Jyväskylä, Finland), organizers of the Disgust Network. The topics range from period blood to eating insects. But what is that disgusting drinking noise? We wonder why it is there… 

 This podcast has been made in collaboration with The Disgust Network, a multi-disciplinary network for the study of disgust from the perspectives of humanities. The network was established in November 2018, and has its base at the University Jyväskylä department of Music, Art and Culture. The network welcomes members from all research backgrounds and institutions.  If you want to learn more, contact
Heidi S. Kosonen (heidi.s.kosonen(a) or Susanne Ylönen (susanne.c.ylonen(a)



Monster Talks is a podcast series that explores the figure of the monster and the concept of the monstrous as important thinking tools for addressing dynamics of power, inclusion and exclusion, discrimination and violence. The podcast is made possible by the support of Nordic Culture Point and produced by The Monster Network in collaboration with Network for Gender Studies at UiS. All episodes are available from the podcast’s website at UiS.

Artwork by Joanne Teresa Taylor, NettOp, University of Stavanger.

Why I Stayed with the Human

Kaisa Kortekallio


Image description: artistic, multicolored collage of a humanoid figure falling or lying on their back, their hands raised. The background is made up of many sheets of paper full of text, put next to each other in a sort of puzzle. Image by: Kaisa Kortekallio, Lukija (”Reader”), 2012.

Recently, I wrapped up a PhD thesis on “mutant narratives” – science fictional narratives that challenge the supremacy and cohesion of human subjects by persuading their readers into taking awkward positions. On the cover of the printed book, I placed a picture of a human-shaped figure, falling or sinking, glued together from pieces of blue and red paper (see the image above).

In 2012, when I was working on both my Master’s thesis and such bricolage, I called the work Lukija (“Reader”). Back then, I lived with unarticulated feelings about immersion, enchantment, ecstasy – of being made anew by the strange agencies at work in reading. The various images, shades and textures of paper cuttings, along with their material histories in magazine publications, offered a way to work with those feelings and render them visible. During the PhD work, as I delved deeper into science fiction, cognitive narratology, and posthumanist theory, this initial intuition about reading was both affirmed and complicated.

The figure, however, was and is coherently bound by its human-shaped outline. In a posthumanist work critical of liberal humanist subjects, is this not a little suspicious? Why stick with this figuration?

Short answer: because I tried something else too, and failed.

Long answer: even as I conceptualize myself as a multitude, a holobiont involving a variety of species, a spaceship for bacteria, a bricolage of materialcultural bits and pieces, I move as one. I do not seem to be able to shed this operational and experiential unity. I can take leave of it, in sleep, meditation or reading, and temporarily lose all sense of boundary between this body and other things – but whenever this body moves again, it moves as one, and the boundary reappears. The skin may be permeable, but it is still a very real boundary.

Crucially, a similar dynamic of collage and cohesion took place in writing a PhD thesis. In reading science fictional narratives – Greg Bear, Paolo Bacigalupi, Jeff VanderMeer – I was often temporarily altered by what I read. The emotionally persuasive mutant families of Bear’s Darwin’s Children (2003) had me sobbing at the dream of familial unity; the oppressive heat wave and political tension in Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl (2009) struck resonance with the oppressiveness of the dark and rainy winter of 2017; and after reading VanderMeer’s Southern Reach (2014), I found myself emulating and repeating phrases and behavioral patterns that I hadn’t consciously noticed during first, second, or even third readings. Simply put – and this is also the gist of the thesis – these narratives became a significant part of my lived environment, and as that lived environment, they grew into me. Or, in more technical terms: as cognitive artefacts, science fictional narratives participated in the construction of (my) readerly subjectivity. In analysis, I traced this back to both narrative techniques and the experiential and material contexts of reading. The biggest challenge – which I think I failed, in the end – was how to best address such a readerly experience in writing.

Initially, I wrote chapters of the thesis in variating and intermeshing voices and registers, thoroughly haunted by the voices and registers of the stories – and theories! – that I was thinking with. The feedback I received in seminars was immediate and severe: this is not how we do things in academia. You have to develop your own voice. You have to establish authority over the work, and guide the reader through your thinking with a stable, coherent presence.

And so I did. In the final assessment, my primary reviewer states that the “clear and self-confident voice [of the thesis] makes it a pleasure to read.” Every time I read these words, I cringe. Offering such pleasure makes me restless, hesitant, and at times even desperate: is this really what I am expected to produce, again and again? This repetition of the self-confident voice of the expert? The human-centered voice that in no way challenges the readers’ habitual sense of communication, the sense of being in touch with a person?

Any student acquainted with poststructuralist theories knows that any textual person, whether in fiction, in nonfiction, or research, is a construction. However, the same student is encouraged and even required to assemble and congeal textual persons that are plausible to the assumed reader, that ring true. They are encouraged to feel such persons as natural, as expressions of themselves. This is anthropocentric subjectivation at work.

How would one construct posthumanist textual agencies that ring true? Figurations that manage some kind of plausibility and still acknowledge the messiness and heterogeneity that make up writing bodies and subjects? What kinds of posthumanist voices can there be, now, at this moment in time?

I do not know. I have no practice in developing such voices. So far, I have only practiced coherence and communication. In more-than-human environments, this practice makes me feel insecure, untruthful, and alone.

In the thesis, the “clear and self-confident voice” states that “the ethical and practical starting point as well as the ongoing process” of the study is marked by Donna J. Haraway’s (2016) notion of staying with the trouble. On the first page of the book of the same title, Haraway writes of learning to be present “as mortal critters entwined in myriad unfinished configurations of places, times, matters, meanings.” My thesis takes on the task of staying with the human figure – as it is repeated and reconfigured in certain works of science fiction, and as it constrains and structures both embodied experience and scholarly subjectivity. As I was being shaped in those seminars, such a task seemed proper. After the work was done, the old bricolage figure also seemed proper.

My best hope for the future is that after all these years, the papery figure is still falling. Maybe the glue slowly erodes, and the pieces come apart a little. Maybe there are cracks and pores for new growths in and out. Maybe there is also room for a present in which such figurations of metamorphosis can be inhabited, not in escapist or romantic mental enclaves but in more-than-human daily lives.


On most days, Kaisa Kortekallio, Ph.D., can be found staring and poking at various living things in a garden in Espoo, Finland. Her Ph.D. thesis, Reading Mutant Narratives: The Bodily Experientiality of Contemporary Ecological Science Fiction, is available here.



Haraway, Donna J. 2016: Staying with the Trouble. Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham & London: Duke University Press.