Disgust, Society, and Sex

I talked yesterday about disgust being ‘a dualistic emotion’, concerned to maintain our sense of the separateness of ourselves as persons, and other things belonging to the personal, spiritual, symbolic realm, from that horrible mindless matter that’s everywhere.

I suggested, in fact, that insofar as this sort of dualism is likely quite basic to how we are organised psychologically, but is nevertheless also false, “personhood” might almost be defined as “matter becoming disgusted with itself”.

But this poses an obvious question – if we struggle to avoid being disgusted at ourselves, how on earth will we deal with other people? Since other people are precisely that most disgusting thing, a fusion of personhood and matter, mind and body, we find them very disgusting. But we need to live with them, so how can this work? How can the need for society overcome our mutual repulsion?

It seems to me there are broadly two (diametrically opposed) ways that we do this: decorum and sexuality.

The best example of decorum is probably that we wear clothes. Even cultures that can leave most of the body exposed due to the climate, still tend to have some symbolic coverings, even if it’s only a coating of oil (I think – there may be exceptions). Similarly, we have a level of space around each other that we stay out of, we manage our hair (all of it – nose, chin, etc.) and our skin, we restrict body contact to particular ritualised forms, we even put limits on what people talk about and what words they use. And when all of this is adhered to, other humans become bearable.

It might almost be suggested that there’s a sort of magic going on. If the right formulas are used, my face, for instance, stops being a physical face – that is, layers of skin and muscle and bone, saliva glands and sweat glands, pores and hairs and blood vessels, mucus membranes and tear ducts and everything else – and becomes instead a spiritual thing, a symbol. Its mouth is no longer an odorous cavern of worn-down teeth and different secretions merging with each other – its just something from which words come, and which can switch into one of a few expression to signify an emotion. The person who I encounter is usually not a human organism (certainly not an animal) but a sort of purified symbolic thing.

But if the words of the magic ritual are messed up – if something’s not quite in the right place, some of the saliva dribbles out of the mouth, a hair projects too far out of the nose – then for a moment the spell is broken, and the horrible spectre of a real squishy human face explodes into our consciousness. It can be quite tiring to wrestle it under control and avoid becoming fixated on that terrifying stray hair.

So that’s decorum – a spell we cast together to keep disgust at bay, by ‘banishing our bodies’ behind the mask of a respectable person. What about the other method of overcoming disgust?

I wasn’t sure what to call this, but I settled on sexuality as the most direct. The basic idea is that by a sort of miracle, the disgustingness of a human body, its intimate mingling of fleshy object and spiritual subject, becomes an object of desire. The charges are reversed, and we come to long desperately for what we would otherwise find most improper.

Why is this even possible? That would require an answer that related back to disgust-as-dualism. If disgusting things are what threaten the mind-body split, might it be that we actually, at some level, want to overcome this split, want to merge with the material world? Quite possibly. Is this connected to the more broadly ‘ambivalent’ nature of human desire, its capacity to desire opposite things – most broadly, the capacity for both boredom (desire for stimulation and tension as such) and tiredness (desire to avoid stimulation and tension as such)? Quite possibly.

Anyway – I wasn’t sure that ‘sexuality’ was the best term because there are ways to tolerate someone’s body intimately that aren’t sexual – such as the body of a family member or close friend. But there’s still something uneasy there, limits that must be observed – and sometimes those limits are specifically that people who are loved in one way must not be loved in another. I won’t comment further on this, because I don’t want to go beyond what I’m relatively confident about.

I’ll just observe that we can obviously predict that whereas the magical formulas of decorum will be characterised by a coolness and a restraint, because they’re a sort of ‘anaesthetic’ against disgust, the miracle of sexuality is characterised by enormously excited feelings and intense arousal, because it goes so deliberately into the threatening area and dances so close to what would otherwise produce a strong negative reaction.

I don’t have much that could be called a conclusion. I will add a final note though. Decorum and sexuality are, naturally, in tension: this is why one of the biggest points of behaving appropriately is not to talk too much about sex. But there is also the potential for cross-over: for sexuality in some form to be incorporated into standards of decorum (albeit in an unstable and tense way). It might even get to the point where it becomes socially inappropriate to be too asexual, to not exhibit oneself sexually enough (glad that hasn’t happened yet, right?) and to a certain extent, perhaps, we are facing developments in this direction that may be quite marked and even unprecedented relative to past societies.

Because of course mind-body dualism is not at all politically neutral. The dominant, person-al, spiritual, rational, willing, active, side…just listing the attributes brings out the link to the ‘masculine’ identity, against the objectual, the passive, the thoughtless, the material, the fleshy, the female. And this comes out in the way that the abstract, neutral ‘sexuality’ becomes male and female sexuality, the sexuality of objects and subjects. That in turn impacts on how those sexualities can interact with public manners and decorum.

So I guess what I’m really saying is that I think there’s a knot of intimately connected concepts here – disgust, sexuality, and gender. Simply saying that isn’t too helpful, of course, and it would be ideal to actually unravel that knot. Maybe I’ll take a stab at that some other time.

One Response to “Disgust, Society, and Sex”

  1. Is Sex Disgusting? Feminism and Metaphysics « Directionless Bones Says:

    […] Feminism and Metaphysics September 9, 2009 — Alderson Warm-Fork In previous posts I argued a few things about disgust. Firstly, I claimed that the main things that disgust us are […]


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