DISGUST: History, Language, Politics and Aesthetics of a Complex Emotion, May 23-24, 2013

full name / name of organization: 
University of Liège
contact email: 
mdelville@ulg.ac.be, V.VonHoffmann@ulg.ac.be, andrew.norris@fulladsl.be

Putrefaction, decomposing corpses, organic corruption, insects or swarming animals, all of these give us a glimpse of an obscure dimension of experience associated with filth, secretions and the body’s dejections – blood, sweat, excrement, saliva, festering sores or other visible tokens of disease... Disgust draws on a broad range of objects in its assault on our senses: nauseating smells, horrible visions, repulsive substances, revolting tastes… Disgust is one of the most violent shocks our perceptual system is capable of receiving (W. Menninghaus). The senses are affected with an immediacy that irresistibly drives them away from the disgusting object; we must look away, hold our noses, or physically escape from the source of our disarray, any contact or contiguity is intolerable (A. Kolnai). And yet, there is something fascinating, even attractive, about disgust. Artists from across the disciplines – literature, painting, performance art, or cinema – have striven to test the aesthetic potential of disgust. These experiments seem motivated by a desire to sound the “enigma of disgust” (C. Korsmeyer). Is then an aesthetic of disgust really possible, or should we conclude, like the aesthetic theorists of the 18th century, that no such category is possible? How to understand this complex sensation in all of its ambiguity? How can a definition of disgust be derived from such a multiplicity of disgusting objects? What is the history both of the word “disgust” and of the sensation itself? How to conceptualize the relations which bring taste and disgust together? What about self-disgust? Which senses act as the special channels of disgust – smell, sight, taste, or touch? Is there such a thing as sonic disgust? And how can we approach the ethical, political and social dimensions of an emotion which has a compulsive on human interactions?

Little remains of disgust when the sensation has run its course, and this makes it difficult to analyze. The negative connotations of disgust have meant that it has long been relegated to the margins of knowledge. In the last few decades, however, it has attracted the attention of researchers from a varied range of disciplines (W. Menninghaus, W. I. Miller, C. Korsmeyer, A. Corbin, P. Camporesi…). Contemporary psychologists such as Paul Rozin have suggested that disgust evolved principally as a protection against unhealthy food. This theory, which seems to consider disgust as a reflex reaction dictated by the survival instinct, raises the question of whether it can indeed be called an emotion at all. Most specialists tend however to see disgust as much more than a rudimentary emotional or physical response. The recent upsurge of interest in disgust as a psychological and philosophical category has brought to the fore definitions that exceed the physiological and argue for a reconsideration of disgust as a “gatekeeper emotion” (S. B. Miller), the expression of “a nearness which is not wanted” (W. Menninghaus), a subversion of “the minimal demands of tolerance” liable to unleash a “powerful anti-democratic force” (W. I. Miller), or a response to the unbearable or uncontrollable, to teeming organic life, a phenomenon described as far back as 1929 in Aurel Kolnai’s foundational essay “Der Ekel”. The leveling power and the sheer untouchability of excrement, the fear of contamination by dirt and germs, the physically or psychologically monstrous, the abject and, more generally, the realization that what we see or feel to be our own actually escapes our control and understanding and potentially threatens our identity and even sometimes our mental health. All of this reminds us of the inevitability of death and the process of physical decay that accompanies it. Paradoxically, excess, luxury, satiety, the satisfaction of every appetite can also create a special form of disgust related to the experience of ennui, a special form of revulsion felt by the subject for the mode of existence it is forced to accept. Finally, disgust is also where the body and the body politic meet and articulate a fundamental anxiety regarding the ethical nature of revulsion. As William Miller suggests when making his case for a reconsideration of disgust as an anti-democratic force, the “gatekeeper emotion” can undergo many social and political transformations both at the macro-social level and at the level of human relationships. These are only some of the possible and conflicting conceptual variations and complications of what we commonly call “disgust”. One of the main purposes of this conference is to discuss not only the physiological and psychological effects associated with “the gatekeeper emotion” but also the cultural, social, moral and historical values it conveys or confronts, at the intersection of the metaphorical and the physical.

A history of disgust can help us make sense of these psychological, bodily and cultural complexities. While disgust has figured prominently in the works of philosophers such as Kant, Nietzsche, Freud, Bataille, Sartre and Kristeva, very little has been written about the historical and literary appropriations of disgust in pre-contemporary times, such as during the Antiquity, the Middle Ages or the Early Modern Era. For example, mystics eating saintly relics or touching the weeping wounds of lepers, the doctor tasting a patient’s urine in order to make a diagnosis, the hideous witch blending a diabolical potion out of the bodies of un-baptized babies and toad juice, the cannibals who populated the undiscovered regions of the New World, any sort of miasma (A. Corbin) – these are some figures capable of arousing a feeling of disgust in contemporary readers like ourselves. There are a number of artistic representations of this theme which have survived into the contemporary age, such as certain still lives and classical vanity pieces, which reveal the inevitable decay lurking within bodies or indeed within the world around us. What was at stake then in the making of these remarkable pictorial narratives which seem to celebrate the repulsive?

The study of disgust will certainly benefit from an interdisciplinary approach drawing on the insights of such fields of enquiry as history, art history, literary studies, anthropology, philosophy, sociology, psychology... Preference will be given to proposals which reflect this diversity of approaches. They should be based on case studies which interrogate the more general and theoretical aspects of disgust. Proposals dealing with non-Western manifestations of disgust are also welcome. The conference as a whole will be articulated around four main themes: 1. Languages and Theories of Disgust; 2. History, Culture and the Senses of Disgust; 3. Aesthetics or Erotics of disgust; 4. Politics and Ethics of disgust.

Please submit an abstract of ca. 300 words (in English or French) and a brief CV to Michel Delville (mdelville@ulg.ac.be), Viktoria von Hoffmann (V.VonHoffmann@ulg.ac.be) and Andrew Norris (andrew.norris@fulladsl.be) by November 15, 2012. If your proposal is accepted you will be contacted by December 15th. Conference participants should send their papers to the organizers by March 15th, 2013. 20 minutes will be allotted for each presentation, followed by 10 minutes for open discussion. Selected proceedings of the conference will be published.

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