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THE ANATOMY OF DISGUST by William Ian Miller

THE ANATOMY OF DISGUST

By William Ian Miller

Pub Date: March 1st, 1997
ISBN: 0-674-03154-7
Publisher: Harvard Univ.

 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, the unhealthy? 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.