DirtPol, University of Lagos
This paper evaluates Winfried Menninghaus’ Disgust: The Theory and History of a Strong Sensation with the intent of establishing a possibility of (re)negotiating human relations and behaviour through the concept and idea of disgust. Common knowledge has it that human relations, from the dimmest past, have been seen in terms of beauty, goodness and truth. This is without adequate affirmation of the presence of disgust, and its other denoting categories within the nexus of human relationships and behaviour. Considering the complexities of disgust, it seems important to generate arguments which will reinforce the knowledge that human relations, behaviour, fantasies and other libidinal urges, whether latent or otherwise, are replete with disgust.
In this book, Menninghaus argues that there is an unconscious refusal or denial that human behaviour and relationships are by and large prefixed on the existence of disgust and other derivatives of it. Using both qualitative methods and a meta-analysis of disgust, he takes us through history to illuminate the relationship between disgust and aesthetics. In the process, he not only establishes the role of disgust as a cognitive and moral determinant, but also its relationship to other categories as illuminated in the theories of Kant, Nietzsche, Kafka, Freud, Kristeva, Sartre, Bataille etc. Menninghaus’ Disgust is a bold statement which suggests that humans are the very embodiment of disgust in the disguise of purity. Menninghaus’ methodological framework is multidisciplinary: what we have before us in Disgust is psychological, philosophical, sociological, historical, scientific and literary enquiry into the understanding of disgust.
Unfolding Planks of Disgust
Menninghaus argues that as artistic creations, both antiquated and modern, started transgressing the borders of reality through (re)enactment; and as scholars began to interrogate these (re)enactments through (re)interpretation, newer ideas suggesting that there is no absolute truth began to emerge. Therefore ideas which had always been held as truth had to be put through a litmus test to verify their reliability or otherwise. When Aristotle for instance postulated the concept of “purity of form” in his Poetics, sub-generic forms of drama were perceived as unacceptable or ‘low’. It was so until William Shakespeare interrogated this norm with his dramatic practice of tragicomedy and other dramatic innovations such as multiple plots. Such innovations gave rise to the Shakespearian theory of drama as postulated by John Dryden in the Essay on Dramatic Poesie. However, the last word has not been said about Aristotle’s “purity of form” as critics are still divided on what Aristotle was inferring.
In the wake of Aristotle, particularly in terms of reference to existing works of drama, Menninghaus draws upon existing theories of disgust and aesthetics from a wide range of disciplines to theorise disgust. Such a wide range of interdisciplinary consultation makes the book an excellent source for the criticism of disgust. For a book with just under 500 pages, with practical reference to numerous theories denoting and connoting disgust, great efforts must have been put in place to maintain readability. One such visible effort is the author’s description of the four main goals of the book to serve as guide to the reader.
The first is his intent to establish a multiple understanding of disgust through a methodological exploration of existing theories of disgust. The second is to establish, through chronological inquiries, the “position and function” of disgust in the formation of other ideas relating to beauty, goodness and truth both in art, and in reality. A good example is the classical idea of beauty which perceives beauty in specific terms like the beautiful body and youthfulness, without overtly recognising aging and blemishes as part of such beauty. With the kind of perceptions emanating from theoretical postulations on beauty and disgust, one is tempted to ask: is the idea of beautiful body the absence or presence of ‘disgusting entries’ of human body? How does Freud’s description of sex and sexuality project practices and taboos, or how does Kristava’s counter theory of abjection redefines beauty to liberate perceived disgust?
Menninghaus’ third goal in Disgust is to take a more direct approach and to interrogate existing theories to prove, whether consciously or unconsciously, that there is a reinforcement of disgust in discourses relating to beauty, truth and goodness. The assumption which this third goal suggests is that the concepts of good, beauty, truth, goodness and disgust are inextricably linked as one in the long run: the reason is that, in an attempt to define truth for example, what is perceived as untruthful or unwanted, which in itself is a denoting term for disgust, becomes wanted and desired as preferences change, and as newer ideas interrogate older ones. Though polygamy (or bigamy) is a practice which attracts punitive measures in some parts of the world, there are still groups who have not only found their way around the law prohibiting such practice, they have also made it an issue of legal tussle between the state and those who think their right is being trampled. Meanwhile, in parts of Africa polygyny still remains an accepted practice under traditional laws. The recent acceptance of marijuana/cannabis consumption, popularly known as Indian hemp, for medical treatment in some states in the USA, is another example of such changes. In spite of the medicinal value of the ‘plant’, some people are still being prosecuted for its trade and consumption. The point here is that one may need to avoid hasty conclusions in a social set-up where the once acceptable turns out to be the unacceptable, and the acceptable unacceptable.
For cultural archivists and critics, Menninghaus’ fourth goal, which centres on culture, may be of some interest. He contends that contemporary cultures have transgressed the boundaries of what is acceptable and unacceptable as the world becomes a global village through encounters. In other words, disgusting social practices are turning out to be accepted. Drawing his allusion particularly from social taboos and table manners, Menninghaus speculates that there is an amelioration of cultural restrictions placed on food and table manners. With examples from Western countries and Asia, he is able to show how the trajectory of globalisation is beginning to redefine the unacceptable. Notwithstanding, one might be careful to ask whether African orientations, which are largely informed by a tenacious affinity to culture, are adequately considered in the ‘speculation’.
To put bias aside, it is important to reiterate that Menninghaus makes a brilliant case for disgust by arguing that, from the onset, the definition of beauty and aesthetics is not only self-seeking but also contradictory. This, according to him, is because known definitions of beauty and aesthetics are knowingly or unknowingly designed to exclude disgust, but reinforce it in the process. Thus, disgust becomes a concept which helps to create bases or templates for discussing beauty, aesthetics and purity in the humanities, science and social sciences. Concerning the use of disgust as a template for discussing beauty, aesthetics and purity, one may want to ask: what is the role of art in establishing theories of disgust? The obvious assumption is that, by exploring the complexities of human behaviour and relations through art, a paradigmatic plank which helps to redefine the notion of truth, beauty and goodness is provided through an analytical process of theorising. It is through such planks that theories of beauty and aesthetics as offered by Kant, Nietzsche, Freud, Kafka Kristeva etc. are established. It is common knowledge that these theories also encapsulate disgust, whether overtly or covertly.
As a powerful feeling which may be “native born”, disgust remains an aspect of the varying human compulsion to repel what is perceived to be unpleasant whether by nature or by nurture. By this token, any effort put in place to understand the formation of disgust will inevitably lead to the understanding of aesthetics, human behaviour and relations. As Moses Mendelssohn (1760: 30) would emphasise, there is a need to take a closer look at the concept of disgust in order to understand it. This is exactly what Menninghaus did when he used his evaluation of Kant’s conception of beauty (1790) to suggest that disgust is the very foundation of aesthetics. By implication, beauty may be perceived as the pleasurable or the acceptable when described in static term, but when placed on a timeline and allowed to translate into impulsive intricacies, it could become unpleasant. We can experience an artistic representation of the above in William Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra and Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman. Both Antony and Elesin Oba (‘Generals’) craved after what they perceived as beauty without pontificating on the inherent dangers and socio-cultural taboos of their cravings; as the rest of the ‘story’ tells us, this singular action of theirs led to their eventual tragedy.
Common knowledge has it that beauty is a virtue; however, there is a line of argument in both plays which suggest that beauty is a vice. This may not be pleasing to some critics; especially those who may want to assume that the woman is beauty personified. The question however is: of what good is beauty, when within it lays destruction? It thus appears that there is a reinforcement of Kant’s perception of beauty as a relative or rather subjective term. What this means is that, there is an extent to which something can be termed as beautiful; and before long, that which is beautiful can become ugly or disgusting. This is exactly what Menninghaus meant when he referenced Johann Karl Wezel (1971:
Pain, particularly physical pain, tauten the nerves. Only when it reaches a very high pitch and lasts too long, does it cause the nerves to slacken. On the other hand, we cannot experience any sort of pleasant sensation for long without the organ being exhausted: surfeit and disgust… are the constant companions of such sensation. (9)
Wezel explains further that sweet smells can become offensive or oppressive when they go beyond the limit of tolerance:
All of us will have enjoyed, or experienced pleasure, at having our skin stroked by a tender hand or being gently tickled- at having our nerves soothed by soft tone, a mild color or a moderately sweet smell. But as soon as the loveliest smell or color exceeds a certain level… it becomes oppressive and unenjoyable, thus producing displeasure. (10)
The above quote reminds one of two Economics theories of “Diminishing Return” and “Diminishing Marginal Utility”, which hold that- in all consumption and production process, there is an increase which reaches a point where diminishing increase of marginal output will start falling. The assumption here is that there is an extent to which every human by nature or nurture can take certain things; it is only a matter of time before their reaction is made manifest; and so, the point where reactions are manifest may therefore be termed as the disgusting point. It must however be noted that since all humans do not have equal level of reaction, what may disgust one may not immediately disgust another. Disgust can therefore be judged by perception, where only the acceptable can be seen as the limit of human conformity to aesthetics and beauty. Beyond this limit of conformity, there is a different plane where the understanding of disgust can be established to explain human relation and behaviour.
From Menninghaus’ postulations, one can perceive that the definition of beauty is a conscious or unconscious effort to exclude certain constituents. The beautiful human body, for instance, is the absence of constituent parts like the anus, aging, vomiting and faecal materials of the body. The human personification of beauty, whether in classical mythology or in contemporary reality, is a picture of well-built young man or woman. The question then is: why are such portrayals not reflective of the flabby, old, or handicapped? The questionable norm is that human beauty is only appreciable for as long the human remains young. This might possibly explain why Miss Universe and Mr. World are usually within a certain age bracket, usually between 18-35 years. Menninghaus’ explanation of this point is quite apt:
Put otherwise: aesthetic pleasure only remains pleasure if something remains to intensify or to discover–something postponing the maximum satisfactory value through an interminable employment of the understanding. (32)
Though Menninghaus offers multiple perspectives to the concept and theory of disgust, what appears most interesting is his evaluation of the psycho-sexual politics of Freud and Kristeva. This is so because, apart from the fact that disgust is a term which denotes dirt, their theoretical concepts of sex and sexuality, just like abjection and the superego, recognise the influence of culture in the formation of all human conception; and this includes disgust and beauty. This recognition of culture as an informing principle of conceptions should be of particular interest to every researcher on the DirtPol project.
Freud’s theory of sexuality in the pleasure and reality principles, which are two ambitious and ‘contradictory’ theories of some sort, is centred on the conflict between the instinctual drive (id) and external constraint (superego). Using the cathartic experience in tragic drama, Freud posited that there is an unconscious excitement in us when our hero kills his father and marries his mother. In his opinion, we are only constrained to show pity and fear due to outward constraints. Obviously, Freud is suggesting the very controversial ‘Oedipus Complex’ which insinuates that every human has an innate tendency to be sexually attracted to the opposite sex, especially a son to a mother.
Freud’s postulations have provoked a number of critical responses in repudiation of what some consider as disgusting. However, it is important to note that this ‘disgusting’ sexual attraction between mother and son may not be an issue as far as some cultural and religious groups and some social set-up in parts of Africa are concerned. For instance, among the Igbos (Ibos) and some other southern minority groups in Nigeria, a male child has a higher socio-cultural and religious standing compared to the female child. This is how Amara, an online columnist with NigeriaFilm.com puts it:
Let us start from the moment a woman gets married… the woman get into her husband’s house only to start praying for a male child due to the pressure she gets, even from her own mother. Your in-laws agree that you are well settled in your husband’s house only when you have a male child…. Many Igbo men today misbehave because they believe they are childless as the women keep giving birth to female children. (www.nigeriafilms.com/news/13124/…/the-igbo–woman-and-her-plight.html)
The same can be said of the Hausas, and even in Christianity to an extent. Some Christian groups tenaciously hold the words of Apostle Paul in 1St Corinthians 14: 34-35, 1st Timothy 2:12, 1st Corinthians 11:3 as the bases for patriarchal arrangement in their Christian practices; thus, putting the woman under ‘subjection’. Though polemics have been generated from these socio-cultural and religious orientations; and social encounter appears to have made such orientations uncommon, the belief which is still deeply entrenched in the unconscious, remains extant. This is without prejudice to the brilliant argument of Ifi Amadiume in Male Daughters and Female Husbands. The implication is that, there may a different theory, besides Freud’s, for explaining the relationship between the mother and son among these groups; and this may not be sexual, as Carl Gustave Jung would later argue. Even though there are existing polemics and polemicist who strongly discountenance the imposition of a dominant patriarchal culture on the spiritual, social, physical and economic wellbeing of the woman, most of them, like Akachi Ezeigbo and Molara Ogundipe Leslie, have recognised the implication of this dominant patriarchal culture on the unconscious psychology of the woman, which to them, must first be dealt with. With this kind of perception still latent in the unconscious, women within these societies begin to see their male children as some kind of security of their status both in the marriage, society and family. It is this latent impulsion that may be responsible for the bond between mother and son; and it has no sexual connotation as Freud’s generalisation would have us believe.
To Freud, what is perceived as beautiful is the sexual excitement and not the sight of the sexual organ which is not perceived as beautiful in the truest sense of the word. As far as he is concerned, for gratification to be achieved, there is an unconscious inversion of ugly with beauty. This inversion to him is an important aspect of sex and sexuality (Freud 1905: 152). The implication of Freud’s postulations for human sexuality is that, disgust is an inherent component of perceived beauty. (Tomas Geysken. Google Books).
Iverson Margret gives us further explanation of the Freudian conception of pleasure and reality as two contradictions which reinforce disgust in human sexuality:
The two principles comes into conflict, causing frustration, repression, and sometimes physical dysfunction… what might be felt by the individual as pain… may in fact be disguised satisfaction of a wish. Conscious distress may be a “symbolic” way of deriving unconscious satisfaction and pleasure. (1)
The long and short of Freud’s account of sexuality and the above quote by Iverson is reinforced in Jesus’ description of certain humans in metaphoric terms when he said: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness”. (Mathew 23: 27)
In reaction to Freud and his stated theories of sexual politics, Kristeva propounded the theory of abjection. Kristeva’s is not just a theory which affirms that culture is a key factor in man’s rejections of his source of life (woman), but also a reinforcement of the existence of superego as posited by Freud. She used the concept of abjection to raise important questions about what have been perceived as truth in order to generate fresher conception of truth. Apart from her development of the abject art of sexual politics, her theory of abjection also created leeway for the proponents of homosexuality to present strong augment in defence of its practitioners and practice. For instance, homosexuals in the new order, as Menninghaus reminds us, are now being able to argue that their “cultural abjection” is nothing but a “repressive” function of patriarchal hegemony, and that their abject existence is a “socially unacceptable way of life and source of pleasure” (389).
Obviously, the last seems not have been said of the complexities of sexual politics. However, with this kind of scholarly interrogation which the exciting excursion of Menninghaus provides, there is a conviction that newer courses may be charted in the understanding of human relations, behaviour and perceptions of individuality. Notwithstanding it is a little worrisome that Menninghaus drew his analogy of disgust from theories which seems to be based on generalisation without any convincing evidence tying the postulations to archetypes, which may have helped to justify any generalisation. Since the totality of ‘disgusting’ portrayals presented by Menninghaus is based on perception, it is hoped that investigations of varying perceptions and contexts informing such perceptions could greatly help to redefine disgust as an index in human relationship and behaviour. Based on the need to provide varying planks for understanding the subject matter, one would anticipate that, on its completion, the current efforts of Professor Stephanie Newell and her team of researchers across selected countries in Africa and the UK, in investigating varying conceptions of dirt and dirt-related words, will help to expound the scope of reference in the criticism of dirt and other categories denoting dirt.
Menninghaus, Winfried. Disgust. New York: State Uni. Press, 2003.
Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Judgement. 1790
Ford, Milt. A Brief History of Homosexuality in America. www.gvsu.edu/allies/a-brief-history-of-homosexuality-in-america-30.htm. 2013
Freud, Sigmund. Beyond the Pleasure. 1920.
—— “The Dream Work”. The interpretation of dreams (1900)
Iverson, Margaret. Beyond Pleasure: Freud, Lecan, Barthes. Pennsylvania: Penn. State Univ. Press, 2007.
Geyskens, Tomas. Our Original Scence: Freud’s Theory of Sexuality. Books.google.com isbn=9058 674711. 2005.
Soyinka,Wole. Soyinka Collected Plays 1&2. Ibadan: Oxford University Press, 1973/1976
Shakespeare, William. Antony and Cleopatra in Complete Works of Shakespeare. London: Collins, 1985.
Wezel, Karl Johann. Versuch uber die Kenntnib des Menschen. 2 vols. Leipzig: Dykische Bushhandlung, 1784-1785, Reprint Frankfurt am Main: Athenaum, 1971.