Published 1997 by Harvard University Press in Cambridge.
Originally written in English. Translated to Spanish and Italian
In 1999, and Slovenian in 2006
Number of pages 320
Chosen best book by the Association of American Publishers, 1997, in sociology/anthropology.
William Miller’s sensational book Anatomy of Disgust describes all the disgusting things that we humans encounter and emit in our daily lives. Disgust According to William Miller is relative and almost everything can be disgusting depending on where it is placed or the nature of it.
To begin with, disgust is considered as a revulsion of something unpleasant or offensive. Disgust is experienced by sense of taste, smell, touch or through vision. Therefore, disgust is very sensational. According to William Miller, anything could be disgusting depending on how someone imagines it or sees, smells, tastes and feels it. Brian Curtis in his book titled Dirt, disgust, and disease: Is hygiene in our genes? States that elicitors of disgust include body products, food, animals, hygiene, body envelope violations, death, and visible signs of infection. These elicitors are discussed comprehensively by William Miller in his book, Anatomy of disgust.
Disgust, according to Miller, is a serious subject of discussion that implicates our morality, love, politics and the sense of self. What then this means is that disgust is part and parcel of our daily lives. We cannot run away from it. It is what has been used to define our morality, love, politics and the sense of self. The author thus views disgust as a very broad theme.
William Miller insist on the essential and domineering nature of disgust and its physicality and analyzes its sensational nature, citing how it has affected the human beings in almost every way. On page 201, the author says that with disgust, we are always in the grip of a sensation, not empowered by it but in the power of it. The author says that a review of the five human senses shows how each claim an independent and very important relation to disgust and its pre-modern synonyms, such as loathsome, abhorrent, abominable, rank and fulsome. Therefore, our five senses are very important in the discussion of disgust. We cannot talk of disgust without talking of the senses. They go hand in hand.
In a further discussion of the sensational nature of disgust, William Miller in the opening pages of the book cites Charles Darwin who at one time was eating dinner in his camp at Tierra del Fuego and a native touched the British food he was eating and immediately he felt disgusted. Darwin then lost appetite. He quotes Darwin as saying that “I felt utter disgust at my food being touched by a naked savage, though his hands did not appear dirty”. Although this shows Darwin’s utter hatred for the savage, it is a clear example of how much disgust is imagined and to a great extent, sensational.
Disgust is a relative aspect and what could be disgusting to you could not be disgusting to someone else. However, Miller points out some universal or shared feelings of disgust. He says that if we want to find a common response on which all people at all times and all places can agree, then the pus drinking of St Catherine of Siena is surely where to look at. As Catherine attended on one of her fellow nun who had breast cancer, she would decant pus from her breast and drink it. She did this to punish herself after vomiting during the dressing of the wound due to the stench from the wound. By Catherine vomiting, it means that the stench made her feel disgusted. Reading Catherine’s story brings unimaginable disgust to everyone. Miller thus points out that some situations brings a feeling of disgust to everyone.
Looking at Chapter three of the book titled Thick, Greasy Life, Miller describes several substances and how they could be disgusting depending on their form. For instance, he sites that although water in many situations is considered as a good thing, wateriness of some substances could be considered as a sign of disease and suppuration. This does not however mean that dryness of a substance is good enough because the author states that some dry substance such as scabs, skin flakes, and crust are also disgusting.
When it comes to a comparison of animals and plants, the author states that animals are much more disgusting than plants. Some animals are more disgusting than others. This, in my view is a very objective statement. The decomposition of plants is what particularly makes plant disgusting. Plants in their natural form are rarely disgusting. True to this because I cannot think of any disgusting plant in its natural form. However, the thoughts we evoke when it comes to eating some plants, can be disgusting. For instance, the thought of eating sea weed can be disgusting. This is a confirmation that disgust is sometimes a construction of our thoughts.
The author brings in an interesting aspect that what makes animals disgusting is not their disgusting nature but the mere thought of we eating them (pg. 48). Some animals that disgust do not disgust themselves but their characteristics disgust. The sliminess of some animals, slitheriness and teemingness of others. I got thinking of how a snail is disgusting due to the fact that it has mucus like substance covering its body. The mere sight of it is disgusting. I wonder then how disgusting it would be to imagine of eating it.
William Miller views boundaries in human beings as being defined by disgust. He cites it as what distinguishes “us” vs. “them”. To him, disgust locates the bounds of the other either as something to be avoided or something to be embraced. Something that is not disgusting is likeable but everyone distances him/herself from something that disgust. Regardless of whether that “thing” is human or just an object. The looks and behavior would normally bring some level of disgust and thus a boundary is created. I agree to the fact that disgust helps mark boundaries of culture and boundaries of self.
Miller also illustrates how disgust can be discussed in political arena. Disgust has been used to define the spaces between the bourgeoisies and the proletariats. The upper class individuals consider the lower classes as smelly. This of course works against the ideas of equality. But it also explains one of the reasons why there is normally less interaction between these two classes.
Towards the end of the book, Miller gives a very strong reason as to why the discussion on the subject of disgust is important. He says that disgust involves morality, self-loathing, prejudice and more private agendas of honor and duty. Therefore, he reminds us to be mindful to another cornerstone of polite society and respect.
About the author of this post: Job Mwaura is a project researcher on the DirtPol project and is concerned primarily with issues pertaining to dirt in media and communications. Job is based in Nairobi, Kenya, and completed his MSc in Communication and Journalism in 2013 at Moi University.
About the project: DirtPol is an international cultural studies project based at the University of Sussex. For more information please visit the DirtPol website.
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