The Anatomy of Disgust

The Anatomy of Disgust

by William Ian MILLER

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William Miller embarks on an alluring journey into the world of disgust, showing how it brings order and meaning to our lives even as it horrifies and revolts us. Our notion of the self, intimately dependent as it is on our response to the excretions and secretions of our bodies, depends on it. Cultural identities have frequent recourse to its boundary-policing


William Miller embarks on an alluring journey into the world of disgust, showing how it brings order and meaning to our lives even as it horrifies and revolts us. Our notion of the self, intimately dependent as it is on our response to the excretions and secretions of our bodies, depends on it. Cultural identities have frequent recourse to its boundary-policing powers. Love depends on overcoming it, while the pleasure of sex comes in large measure from the titillating violation of disgust prohibitions. Imagine aesthetics without disgust for tastelessness and vulgarity; imagine morality without disgust for evil, hypocrisy, stupidity, and cruelty.

Miller details our anxious relation to basic life processes: eating, excreting, fornicating, decaying, and dying. But disgust pushes beyond the flesh to vivify the larger social order with the idiom it commandeers from the sights, smells, tastes, feels, and sounds of fleshly physicality. Disgust and contempt, Miller argues, play crucial political roles in creating and maintaining social hierarchy. Democracy depends less on respect for persons than on an equal distribution of contempt. Disgust, however, signals dangerous division. The high's belief that the low actually smell bad, or are sources of pollution, seriously threatens democracy.

Miller argues that disgust is deeply grounded in our ambivalence to life: it distresses us that the fair is so fragile, so easily reduced to foulness, and that the foul may seem more than passing fair in certain slants of light. When we are disgusted, we are attempting to set bounds, to keep chaos at bay. Of course we fail. But, as Miller points out, our failure is hardly an occasion for despair, for disgust also helps to animate the world, and to make it a dangerous, magical, and exciting place.

Editorial Reviews

David Futrelle

In the midst of the Depression 1930s, George Orwell was commissioned to write an account of working-class life in England's industrial north for the Left Book Club, a book-of-the-month subscription service for parlor pinks. The result, The Road To Wigan Pier, seemed designed to unsettle his editors. The first half of the book did indeed describe the hard life of working-class northerners, among whom Orwell had spent some miserable months, but the second half was a different proposition entirely -- a polemic attack on socialist cranks and a surprisingly sympathetic exploration of middle-class priggishness. Orwell suggested that the "real secret of class distinctions in the West," the real obstacle to true egalitarianism, was the (not altogether unjustified) middle-class belief that "the lower classes smell."

William Ian Miller concludes his marvelously fertile new book, The Anatomy of Disgust, by picking at the subject of Orwell's nose. Like Orwell, Miller is convinced that disgust is inimical to true democracy, forcing us to draw invidious distinctions between the "pure" and the "impure," between the impeccably proper and the irredeemably vulgar. At the heart of the emotion of disgust, Miller notes, is a deep misanthropy, a hatred of the (sometimes fetid) fertility of "life soup." The easily disgusted draw back in horror at our bodily wastes, the inevitable result of our corporeal existence. They look with contempt on anything too full of life. "Disgust recoils at what we are and what we do," Miller observes. "Disgust gives us reasons for withdrawing" from the world.

Miller's book, a wonderfully unclassifiable work that mixes history and philosophy with autobiographical reflections, ranges from frank (though never crude) discussions of the comic potential of flatulence to the deeper implications of disgust for democratic society. Miller charts the landscape of disgust, drawing careful distinctions between it and related emotions like fear and loathing; he reexamines the role of disgust in what historian Norbert Elias called "The Civilizing Process."

This is a book that could easily have descended into the merely gross. But Miller, who teaches history, is not interested in shocking his readers. If anything, he is overly dainty in his language, writing about even the ickiest of subjects with carefully evasive euphemism. "We are proud of our production and quite pleased if especially large amounts are expelled in one effort," Miller notes, expounding upon feces. "We look upon our creations far more often than we admit, or if we don't look we imagine with pleasure our extraordinary productive capacities."

But there is a certain charm to Miller's fastidiousness. Who better to write about disgust, after all, than a man who is easily disgusted? The Anatomy of Disgust is not a book that would please Beavis and Butt-head, but it's one that should appeal to the Beavis and Butt-head in all of us. -- Salon

Andrew Stark
While The Anatomy of Disgut does disgust, it also enthralls, enlightens, dazzles, and entertains. . . What this beautifully written book reminds us so brilliantly is how much the humanities -- and in some ways only the humanities -- can tell us about the empirical world, the world of physical sensation, social behavior, and political conflict. -- Times Literary Supplement
Entertainment Weekly
. . .[A] strangely compelling excavation of things foul . . .
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Miller's book has secured one of those rare gifts: a perfectly realized cover. In a dark room, a large group of diners looks disapprovingly at the viewer. The one empty seat indicates that he or she once had a place at the table but is now excluded. The butler, too, is contemptuous, and only a small dog smiles-perhaps in recognition. Like humiliation (the subject and title of his earlier book), disgust, the author maintains, serves to order society, in the same way that some more studied motivators (such as greed) do. A professor at Michigan Law School, Miller mines history (particularly the Middle Ages), literature (particularly skaldic), Freud, Orwell and his own experiences as a parent of four young children to show the holes in Mary Douglas's theory that the disgusting is anomalous, something that doesn't fit (say, hair growing out of ears), and in Paul Rozin's argument that disgust resides in "food rejection or in anxieties about our animal origins." There's plenty of talk about unconscious desire and surfeit of the generative (fertile green ooze or a decaying body disgusts in a way a rock never can); but above all, Miller argues that disgust establishes rank. Lower plants are more disgusting to us (algae versus oaks), as are lower animals (slugs or cockroaches versus dolphins). And, of course, lower classes. Especially after the 18th century, disgust became more clearly bound up with class, bourgeois good taste and moral values. Miller's a fine, entertaining, self-deprecating writer who has created a book that, if not always appetizing, is still a tasteful examination of a strong emotion that is generally held at arm's length.
Library Journal
Miller (law, Univ. of Michigan) is certainly an expert on the unsavory. He brilliantly marshals sources that span a millennium of Western history, drawing critically on the works of such diverse thinkers as Hume, Hazlitt, and Freud. One of his main and persuasive conclusions is that disgust fills a social function by identifying and sanctioning class behaviors and attitudes. In making this case, however, he reveals his own apparent insecurity about class as conditioned by his acknowledged privileged perspective. Readers may also need to work through his notion that true love--and sexual pleasure--depend on overcoming disgust. Casual readers need not apply; although Miller writes well, his tone is relentlessly professorial. Given his universal theme, that's a mild disappointment. A category-defying book most appealing to psychologists, anthropologists, and philoophers, this is essential only for liberal arts collections. -- Scott H. Silverman, Bryn Mawr Coll. Lib., Pa.
A meditation on disgust which shows how it brings order and meaning to our lives even as it horrifies and revolts us. Chapter titles like "thick, greasy life" and "orifices and bodily wastes" are excellent examples of the simultaneous attraction/repulsion that Miller (U. of Michigan Law School) is so intrigued by. He explores the psychological and sociological aspects of disgust, then proceeds to the next level, arguing that disgust and contempt play crucial political roles in creating and maintaining democracy, as well as social hierarchy.
Kirkus Reviews
Having ably dissected humiliation in his 1993 book of that title, Miller now sets his keen insights on something even more fundamental to the human condition: disgust. It is easy to dismiss disgust as a mere gut-level twinge; after all, the word (and thus, to some extent, the concept) did not even enter the English language until the 17th century. But Miller convincingly argues for disgust's wide-ranging cultural influence, "the important role it plays in organizing and internalizing many of our attitudes towards the moral, social, and political domains." With an Aristotelian zeal and thoroughness, he proceeds to explore the ramifications of disgust's various manifestations, from its role as the strict guardian of social hierarchies to its place as the gentle handmaiden of civilization. These are impressive credentials, considering its origins in what Miller terms "life soup, the roiling stuff of eating, defecation, fornication, generation, death, rot, and regeneration." Miller argues that disgust "uses" this very raw material for two distinct purposes. The first is a Freudian kind of superego short- circuiting of unconscious desire (i.e., the incest taboo). The second is to prevent excess (think of the self-loathing that often accompanies hangovers). While his sociopolitical/moral analyses of the workings of disgust are thorough and convincing, Miller spends little time on disgust's necessary opposite, desire. He also fails to consider the possible evolutionary functions of disgust. From food taboos to table manners, its specificities are often culturally constructed, but we all have the capacity and drive to be disgusted. Was this to help us avoid the rotten, the diseased, theunhealthy? Like many books on single subjects, this is sometimes overzealous in its interpretations—disgust seems to lurk in every corner of social life—but Miller has done a tasteful and intelligent job of shedding light on the muck of our most visceral and primordial emotion.

New York Times
William Ian Miller...meticulously dissects the notion of disgust with the rigor of a legal brief, trying to determine its boundaries and powers.
— Edward Rothstein
Spy Magazine
Gripping, solid, and utterly comprehensive.
This is unique: an investigation into disgust and how we manage to sublimate aversion into sociological, psychological, and cultural channels...Readers willing to overcome their own disgust may find [Miller's idea] a brilliant one and also an unusual way to address how we love...and how we hate...More than mapping out revulsion, however, Miller maintains that moral outlooks emanate from disgust--a radical proposition that is argued provocatively.
The New Yorker
[A] most useful that takes its readers, however reluctantly, down alleys of life worth traversing. One wouldn't have thought that the subject of disgust could exfoliate so elaborately, or throw off so many provocative insights, as it does in these pages, not only into the way we live but into the way we have always lived. The capacity for disgust, it turns out, may be as significant as any quality we possess...[Miller] is excellent when, enlarging his argument beyond the level of the heartily repulsive, he takes up the social subtleties of disgust.
— Joseph Epstein
The Economist
William Miller...[is] an original and imaginative law professor...who studies what used to be called the "moral passions". He has followed his 1993 book Humiliation with a fascinating study of disgust--a universal human feeling that underpins many moral responses...His literary evidence is rich: Swift's fascination with the stinking privy stool behind the dressing table; Shakespeare's bubbling cauldron of witch-brew; the maggot-blown world of Jacobean tragedy; Freud gaping at the engulfing vagina...But Mr Miller does more than catalogue revoltingness. His interest is in the moral meaning of disgust...[T]his is a thought-provoking, humane study.
New Republic
Miller has written a wide-ranging and rich account of the emotion of disgust, drawing on psychology, literature, and history--all filtered through his own vivid narrative of the phenomena of bodily existence… Many writers about disgust have treated it as a bare feeling, with little or no cognitive content. Miller argues powerfully that this approach is inadequate. Disgust actually has a very complex and sophisticated cognitive content.
— Martha C. Nussbaum
The Observer
[A] learned book...Miller rightly perceives that disgust helps to define our identities, create hierarchies, and order our world.
— Anthony Storr
Boston Globe
While much of Miller's The Anatomy is devoted to a discussion of psychological responses to the disgusting, his most important contribution may be his detailing of the social and political ramifications of those responses.
— Michael Kenney
Financial Times
Miller is a professor of law, but he brings to his task a mind well-stocked in literature, psychology, anthropology and history. He aims to bridge the academic and lay worlds, and to restore moral psychology to the wholeness it had for Montaigne and La Rochefoucauld...He wants us to treat disgust with the seriousness it deserves, as a determinant of love, sexuality, politics, and even our sense of self. And against all the odds he's succeeded: this is a fascinating book. Disgust is more than a feeling: it is an emotion with an inescapably moral tinge, and it has to be learned (the Wolf Boy of Aveyron did not know it). It is not simple misanthropy or plain nausea, but it is Sartre's existential nausee; it is Hamlet's view of the world and everyone in it. It is a response to defilement; it denotes a recoil from horror (cruelty and gore, or even Beauty and the Beast); it arises suddenly, but is slow to dissipate. And disgust is not a disembodied emotion like contempt. It is too visceral to be ironic, it always involves the senses, and it expresses itself in physical terms...Dealing in ideas which are frowstily familiar, [Miller] makes of them something startlingly fresh. This exploration of the psyche's murky byways would make a major book in itself, but Miller's purpose is deeper: he wants to prove that disgust is actually useful--in love, and possibly in the social arena.
— Michael Church
New York Times Book Review
Mr. Miller's novel line of inquiry, as well as frequent displays of wit and insight, makes The Anatomy of Disgust an engaging book.
— Robert Grudin
Times Literary Supplement
While The Anatomy of Disgust does disgust, it also enthralls, enlightens, dazzles and entertains. It "anatomizes" disgust--which Miller defines as a "strong sense of aversion to something perceived as dangerous because of its powers to contaminate, infect or pollute"--by exploring it as both a physical sensation and a moral sentiment. In both cases, it turns out, disgust has enormous political and social implications. But perhaps the most striking thing about The Anatomy of Disgust, as Miller himself says, is its willingness to be "methodologically promiscuous", to draw on history, literature, moral philosophy and psychology as well as on events from Miller's own life...What this beautifully written book reminds us so brilliantly is how much the humanities--and in some ways only the humanities--can tell us about the empirical world, the world of physical sensation, social behaviour, and political conflict.
— Andrew Stark
Independent on Sunday
[A]n enjoyable, methodologically eclectic academic romp.
— Jenny Turner
Canadian Review of Comparative Literature
Although Miller is not the first scholar to bring disgust out from the spell of silence under which it has traditionally been kept hidden, he is the first to do so with a depth and empirical amplitude that corresponds to the complexity of the topic...Miller has written a compact study of a roiling subject, studded with local brilliances, that makes a large, but clearly arguable, point. Human society needs the "moral emotions," disgust perhaps most of all, to enforce its taboos, its armory of boundary-rules, and to keep pollution at bay.
— W. R. Robertson
Salon Magazine (Web)
[A] marvelously fertile new book...a wonderfully unclassifiable work that mixes history and philosophy with autobiographical reflections, [and] ranges from frank (though never crude) discussions of the comic potential of flatulence to the deeper implications of disgust for a democratic society.
— David Futrelle

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Harvard University Press
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Meet the Author

William Ian Miller is Professor of Law at the University of Michigan.

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