The Anatomy of Disgust

November 28, 2020
The Anatomy of Disgust

William Miller embarks on an alluring journey into the world ofdisgust, showing how it brings order and meaning to our lives evenas it horrifies and revolts us. Our notion of the self, intimatelydependent as it is on our response to the excretions and secretionsof our bodies, depends on it. Cultural identities have frequentrecourse to its boundary-policing powers. Love depends onovercoming it, while the pleasure of sex comes in large measurefrom the titillating violation of disgust prohibitions. Imagineaesthetics without disgust for tastelessness and vulgarity; imaginemorality without disgust for evil, hypocrisy, stupidity, andcruelty.Miller details our anxious relation to basic life processes:eating, excreting, fornicating, decaying, and dying. But disgustpushes beyond the flesh to vivify the larger social order with theidiom it commandeers from the sights, smells, tastes, feels, andsounds of fleshly physicality. Disgust and contempt, Miller argues,play crucial political roles in creating and maintaining socialhierarchy. Democracy depends less on respect for persons than on anequal distribution of contempt. Disgust, however, signals dangerousdivision. The high's belief that the low actually smell bad, or aresources of pollution, seriously threatens democracy.Miller argues that disgust is deeply grounded in our ambivalenceto life: it distresses us that the fair is so fragile, so easilyreduced to foulness, and that the foul may seem more than passingfair in certain slants of light. When we are disgusted, we areattempting to set bounds, to keep chaos at bay. Of course we fail.But, as Miller points out, our failure is hardly an occasion fordespair, for disgust also helps to animate the world, and to makeit a dangerous, magical, and exciting place.