First of all, we need to set the terms. While “disgust” is usable and familiar, a more complex discussion has followed the psychoanalytically influenced term “abjection,” particularly in the wake of Julia Kristeva’s elaboration of the term in her analysis of horror. (I’ll return to these issues later.) But, noting that “disgust” is bound to the contingency of specific cultural settings (for example the term itself is not universally translated even in Indo-European languages), it may be useful to elaborate the concept outward to include relations to “distress,” “anxiety,” “fear,” loathing,” or other terms that express a disturbance that the text or media element at hand creates in a reader/spectator/audience. This is the familiar terrain in film studies of “body genres”—genres that evoke psychological/physical responses—such as melodrama (tears), low comedy (laughter), pornography (sexual excitement).
But, to start and plant a flag, disgust is a fact, something observable. Some parts of some media texts evoke or provoke a distaste, disturbance, or other kind of rejection by the audience. Artists know this and can employ it to artistic effect. But it is also readily seen that this response varies by individuals. Not everyone is repulsed in the same way or to the same extent by the same stimulus. So, we surmise that individual psychology and perhaps experience have something to do with it.
In terms of film, which is my main reference point here, we’ve all had the experience of ourselves being with others who found certain films or parts of them revolting, annoying, or obnoxious. Common conversations about the recent cinema often include mentions of this. A doesn’t like explicit violence, while B doesn’t seem to be bothered by it. C objects to a specific example in a specific film, but doesn’t share an aversion to a very similar sequence in another film. Are these just idiosyncratic variations? Part of the normal range of differences in art reception? Or is there something deeper going on? I think it needs more investigation, and I’d move from the microlevel of individual reaction to a much broader cultural scope and try to think about another observable phenomenon: horrible or disgusting images and narrative materials vary significantly by culture and tradition. Clearly, while “disgust” as an emotion may be universal in humankind, that is all humans have aversion reactions which are both physical and mental, what provokes disgust varies from culture to culture. It seems to be taught or developed by parents with infants and children, and within cultures it seems to be distinct by class, certainly, and it seems to be inflected by gender and other social variables. In a later episode of this article, I will propose a model for applying Bourdieu’s analysis of cultural taste or distinction in terms of cross cultural disgust. Here I mark out a tripartite analysis of disgust in response to media art: individual, cultural, and “universal.”
Everyone has a distinct individual response based in their own personal psychology, experience, development, and exposure to the world. This response is fundamentally visceral, a bodily experience which combines perception, cognition, and emotion: in short, personality. But it is also historical and social in the broad sense of being informed by active and intellectual activity, including one’s own morality and ethical standards. The cultural, historical, and eventful framework comes into play. This is the realm of sociologically and ideologically informed response, and everyone is subject to it. In this arena, “disgust” is a learned behavior following a culturally specific (and thus also culturally variable) response. Disgust is rooted in the body: first learned as a physical repulsion. But with the development of the body and the mind, disgust can also be provoked by images and experienced as emotional or even intellectual repulsion.
4: Abortion and cannibalism
Before writing my article on Dumplings, a film that includes abortion and cannibalism, Fruit Chan’s films fascinated me. I appreciated their neo-realist style, combination of class and gender depictions, and dynamic narrative patterns. I had not seen Dumplings but while planning to teach a course on Hong Kong cinema, a grad student in my department, Evans Chan, brought me a copy from Hong Kong and urged me to show it as an example of contemporary horror. Actually, I chose to show a clip from the beginning of The Untold Story (aka Human Pork Buns) to illustrate Hong Kong Horror, and the entire feature indie film Fu Bo, which contains macabre material (discussed below). To represent Fruit Chan, I screened Durian Durian (2004), arguably his best film (with Little Cheung a close second).[open endnotes in new window]
Viewing Dumplings for the first time, I realized I really couldn’t easily teach it in a U.S. undergraduate classroom without extensive preparation. Some of the imagery and story elements were so disturbing that it would be better for the overall course design to simply make it available for optional viewing and to choose a less controversial film for classroom screening. However, not unexpectedly, a few students found Fu Bo disturbing with its theme and imagery of dead bodies in a mortuary.
The key reason why I decided against using Dumplings in the classroom was the anti-abortion movement’s success at dominating the visual discourse of fetal images. Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 which legalized first trimester abortion, abortion foes have used images of aborted fetuses in advertising and public demonstrations promoting their political agenda. These have included large poster-sized images of bloody fetuses, purported fetuses, and “blood” covered baby dolls and animal fetuses. The controversy surrounding the 2009 honoring of President Barack Obama at Notre Dame University’s commencement re-ignited the activists and brought out the same visuals. For several days before the event a plane flew over the campus with a banner trailing behind showing a bloody fetal image, and protestors gathered off campus with the usual signs, baby dolls stained with red, etc.
With a complete awareness of the knee-jerk response of anti-abortion forces, a graduating Yale senior in 2008 said she intended to show an artwork in the graduating art student gallery show that was marked by the blood stains of a series of self-induced abortions. This produced the predictable outrage, scrambling by Yale administrators, and so forth, indicating if nothing else that the student, Aliza Shvarts, had a full understanding of the dynamics of the current art world and the ability to get attention and publicity by proposing something sensational.
Abortion rights activists do not have a comparable set of dramatic images in the public arena. At best their literature offers “family planning” publicity images (depicting a heterosexual two generation nuclear family with a boy and girl) or college aged straight couples in affectionate poses implying birth control for the sexually active. Commercial contraception advertising follows the same general path. In the U.S. a dispassionate or clinical visual representation of abortion is simply not allowed in the public sphere.
The one allowable depiction of abortion from a “woman’s right to choose” position is the tragic frame. A powerful protest sculpture from the era before legal abortion, Edward Kienholz’s The Illegal Operation (1962) is a mixed media piece.
The empty setting implies human agents: the woman getting an abortion and the person performing the procedure: now absent, but not forgotten by any means. The sculpture thus evokes the drama of the absent event, the forbidden performance, the indignity of its space. The Illegal Operation is deliberately confrontational and appalling. By underlining the unsafe, unsanitary and makeshift nature of “back alley abortions,” as they were called then, the installation eloquently cries out at the injustice of then-current law.
If These Walls Could Talk –1952
In a similar vein, the three part episodic film If These Walls Could Talk (HBO, 1996) dramatizes key issues in the abortion rights movement: “1952” depicts Demi Moore as a recently widowed nurse who is forced into an illegal abortion and who dies as a result. The story boldly argues for safe, available, and medically supervised procedures. “1974” presents Sissy Spacek as a mother of four who finds herself unexpectedly pregnant and must decide between giving birth or aborting. “1996” offers Anne Heche as an unmarried student who wants to terminate her pregnancy and is counseled by Cher, playing an MD and clinic supervisor who must offer compassionate concern for her patients while fending off disruptive anti-abortion protesters at her clinic.
The 1952 episode melodramatizes the story of a nurse whose husband died six months earlier in the Korean War. In a moment of despair and grief at her widowhood, she had sex with her brother-in-law and became pregnant. Even though she has professional contacts and a job in medicine, she has no access to a safe and affordable abortion. Frustrated at every turn, she even attempts to self-abort with a knitting needle into the uterus, but without success. In desperation, she finally connects with a shady and cruel figure who performs a kitchen table operation without sanitary precautions and who leaves her to bleed out and die when things go wrong. Moore plays the character’s anxiety and despair with dramatic intensity and effect. (She co-produced the project as well.) As a didactic melodrama on a social problem, the short film makes its point: without legal, safe, affordable abortion, desperate women risked their dignity and lives to solve their problem pregnancy. But this drama and its final scene is the representational limit of showing abortion in the U.S.. Against the scare and horror imagery used by anti-abortion forces, the pro-abortion side can only present abortion as a tragedy with a sympathetic victimized woman, and the mother’s blood but not a fetus.