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.
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: https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/23d1/37cd00dbb33f0531e1a71541e45da1a27d12.pdf
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.