Some notes on disgust

Disgust is a fertile state from which we can explore body/knowledge intersections. From Deborah Durham’s 2011 article in Ethos, “…disgust is part of an array of sensations that are seen to be beyond reason and rationality. To ‘feel something in one’s gut’ or ‘know something in one’s gut’ is to know it surely and incontrovertibly: like gut-knowledge, disgust in American is both non-rational, yet also a form of knowledge.”

‘Non-rational knowledge’ seems an overly complicated, and morally-laden, description for an ordinary practice. Is there a way to heal the cleave between ‘feel’ and ‘know’ so that we can discuss a closer-to-whole beast of knowledge? Are there singular words and meanings we can use to replace the go-to divided choices that have become an unproductive formula?

Taking an anthropological turn away from the assumption of the individual sovereign self, can lead us to reach for intersubjective, inclusive paradigms like ‘atmosphere’, ‘quality’, ‘vibration’ and ‘empathy’. Yet these meanings of assembly and inclusive connection have not yet borne the resolution, beyond Cartesianism, that is recognisably possible.

In a phenomenological exploration of pain, Frederik Buytendijk characterises the state of being ‘in’ pain as a severing of the self from the world. Aurel Kolnai, in a phenomenology of disgust, says disgust extends the self into the world. Disgust is a bridge. To experience disgust entails a real or imagined intimacy with the object of disgust.

Kolnai’s use of ‘intimacy’ places us into a more productive register than ‘non-rational knowledge’. Firstly, intimacy itself is a knowledge, an understanding of the strongest kind. And, second, intimacy is an ‘active’ knowledge in contrast to the passivity of non-rational knowledge concepts such as ‘atmosphere’, etc.. Intimacy is a knowledge known in the atmosphere of experience.

Durham asks us to think of disgust as an act of embodied imagination in the company of an intimacy-distancing dynamic (both in and out, both near and far, both push and pull, etc.). Yet, imagination cannot be anything other than embodied. (E.g., what would a dis-embodied imagination entail? Arial maps? House plans? What could an unembodied imagination be? A ghost’s story? A trans-human unseeable vision?)

Imagine eating fresh human faeces. Warm, waxy on your lips. Your teeth slide into the dark, soft cigar. The smell of shit feels like a thick cloud attached to you from within. Are you experiencing ‘non-rational knowledge’? Do you have an array of sensations ‘beyond reason and rationality’?

I didn’t think so.

Doesn’t the power of ‘gut-knowledge’ demand the engagement of an appropriate gut-knowledge language? Would not that simple act alone indicate the deserved respect for the unspoken supremacy of our body, flesh; gut-intimate both delicate and undeniable?


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Phenomenology & Description II

Writing a phenomenological description is ‘poem-ing’. The experience of poem-ing is evident in the act of writing down a phenomenological description. We must not confuse this experience with writing words, nor characterise it as words. We tend to over-emphasise the importance of words in a written work. Experientially, words play an important but slight role in the act of phenomenological writing compared to other characteristics of description.

Roman Ingarden, stratifies the place of words in his phenomenological investigations of literature. Ingarden’s broad project is to analyse the shared characteristics within a group of written works (“literary art”). He argues for essentially present properties that operate in relational strata within a given work. In this, the qualities of words are only one of four strata that constitute a written work.

Ingarden’s third stratum, schematised aspects, offers the interesting concept of ‘held-in-readiness’. Schematised aspects in a literary work are the qualities and actions that build an intentional object. The intentional object of a wickerman, for example, is built through the described coherent aspects such woven sticks, eerie bearing, vast height and inner cavity. We perceive aspects in a concrete way, as sensations within our body and imagination, in the absence of a corresponding material object.

Aspects, as complex descriptions, are held-in-readiness. It is as if they are prepared for the opportunity to be thought and imagined in consciousness. Waiting in the wings to be given over in intentionality. Aspects (appearances), held-in-readiness, move from possible to actual in a written work; however, it is not the “…actuality of a concretely experienced aspect, nor is it simple potentiality” (Ingarden). Holding-in-readiness has a peculiarly unreal-real quality. The unreal quality we easily understand: the written lacks a Körper aliveness but exhibits a Körper existence. Holding-in-readiness has an experience of non-material dimensionality felt materially.

Holding-in-readiness is the space for ‘from’. We are being in the holding, we are held as we write, until we achieve those moments where the writing is from, not of. Once we are writing from, we are there. Held in the space-process of poem-ing. Heidegger says poetry is the unconcelament of being – it is the ‘how’ of how we get to ‘there’ in our ‘here’. In an example of phenomenological writing from Langveld, we can begin to see the influence of this manifold of poem-ing.

In this extract, Langveld is reaching into the secret, still world of children by describing the magic and experience of certain types of solitary hiding.

“How deep is the stillness behind the heavy curtains even when the room is full of noise and conversation. All the more reason to keep oneself quiet and still. For just as the transparency of the window pane opens up both the outer and the inner world, so the curtain allows sounds to pass through. And just as through the window one sees and is seen, so behind the curtain one hears and is heard. So much more reason to be quiet and unobtrusive behind the curtain. All that this curtain shows us -its snake-like boundary at the floor, the unpredictability even of this shifting and easily moved border, its pliancy, which betrays one at the slightest movement-all of this urges us to remain quietly within our boundaries. Don’t move! Don’t touch the curtain!” (Langveld).

The held-in-readiness is clearly sensed in this slice of description. We can sense the held-in-readiness of each aspect as it meets us. We are then in that room where the writing-reading corridor leads; where the body can sense in material ways the aspects of non-material spaces.


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Ingarden, R., 1973. The Cognition of the Literary Work of Art. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

Langveld, M. J., 1983. The Stillness of the Secret Place. Phenomenology + Pedagogy, 1(1), pp. 11-17