Sunday, 5 June 2011

Deformity Disgust

Some scholars have argued that bodily deformities, asymmetries, and mutilations arouse disgust because they are cues to disease. They point to studies showing that seeing any kind of deformity makes the concept of disease more accessible and available, as measured by psychological tasks similar to free-association. This is true even of deformities that science tells us have no relation to contagious infection, such as birth defects or missing limbs. The idea is that our cultural/biological immune system thinks we're better safe than sorry, loading us with a tendency to get disgusted about any sort of strangeness of body.

That may be so, originally. But disgust serves another purpose than just protecting us from disease. It's a response protecting our fragile self-awareness from existential strangeness, from things that blur the human category, and from people who violate the cultural practices that are required to set us apart from the animals. One such practice was the blackening of teeth by the aristocracy of Heian-era Japan. By the strict biological interpretation of disgust, rotten or missing teeth are a cue to disease. But Lady Murakami, in her diary, wrote of the revulsion felt at seeing the white teeth of a commoner, which were like those of an animal.

Fantasy literature and gaming abound in animal-humans and other monstrous beings that cross the boundary between people and other. Disgust is one reaction to such creatures.

Some monsters are more likely than others to be disgusting: crossbreeds with disgusting animals, like fish, pigs or octopi; creatures with key aspects of humanity altered or missing, like bones or a face. Some mutants are fairly normal in fantasy, mainly because they are crosses between humans and domestic or noble animals that we semi-humanize anyway (centaurs, satyrs). They take on a disgusting aspect only when we think of the possibility that they were created through human-animal sex, as the mythical Minotaur was. Regulating our sexual possibilities, of course, is another way society makes our bodies human rather than animal. In most societies, even the most liberal, disgust at monstrous, unnatural or indiscriminate couplings is a mainstay of social order.

Disgust is not just a marker of the nonhuman, but an active route to dehumanization and extermination. Pig-face orcs bring with them a mandate to be killed in a way that pigs or humans do not. Their very existence offends the natural order, they mingle Platonic forms in a way that must be exterminated, though we cannot articulate why. We still have primitive reflexes, conditioned by fiction and the way we talk about the world, that draw an equivalence between what's natural (actually, what fits into our human idea of nature) and what's moral. Picture the following exchange in fantasy land:

"I've found the source of those strange monkey-slug-polyp things. They come from a vast, bubbling pool of slime in the swamp, surmounted by a swaying, tentacled pillar of flesh."
"How amazing! Let's go there to observe and celebrate the diversity of life in this magical world!"

Not very likely, right?

A more sophisticated development turns the simple association of physical deformity with evil into a story, where the physical deformity is a consequence of evil. This kind of narrative can even take on a populist slant, as in the urban rumors of pig-faced women that circulated in previous eras, where the deformity is a punishment visited on the child for the mother's lack of charity.

Unlike fantasyland, reality presents us with no such physical cues to evil. People who present a monstrous aspect usually got that way through no fault of their own. This leads to a second, more liberating impulse in fictional treatments, itself by now also a cliche - the sympathetic, misunderstood, even heroic monster, from Beauty's Beast to the Elephant Man to the Swamp Thing.

Weird or heroic fantasy follows the first two patterns, where the monstrous is to be exterminated as a reflex. Science fiction, though, often follows the sympathetic pattern. Think of Gamma World's scheme where everyone's a mutant, or the typical galactic romance with its teeming variety of aliens. In the words of SF author Jeff Noon: "Pure is poor."

So we get one more insight into the much-discussed flumph: as a good-aligned creature, its monstrous aspect (those tentacles, that mouth) is anathema to the conservative physical-moral equations of fantasy, but fits right at home in science fiction.


  1. Very interesting! :)

    Do you think that popular children's cartoons and comics has changed our perception of human animal hybrids? I think many people would describe human-animals as cartoony / comical rather than "disgusting". You would need to emphasize unusual elements or add separate disgusting description to make them, er, disgusting. Mange, fleas, deformities, beastial behaviour (not appearance), non-human eyes, smell, etc

  2. Articles regarding the "uncanny valley" of perception may be helpful in expanding this discussion. Tough to capture this effect in oral narrative, because it requires a fairly complete description of normality with just one feature subtly off.

    A fairly poor example: "The barmaid? She has curves in all the right places, and a simply lovely face. Sparkling blues eyes, rosy cheeks, wavy blond hair, a cute little nose."

    Later, as the curious adventurer flirts with that barmaid: "She sneezes, and her nose falls off into your drink - revealing a roughly triangular hole in which a few maggots squirm."

  3. @Stuart: Good point, I think the usual cartoon representation works because it doesn't dwell too much on the physical, or how creepy such a creature would really be. The first step in that direction starts with the old saw, "If Pluto is a dog then what the hell is Goofy?"

    @Sigilic: The uncanny valley is very apropos here, and may be even more relevant to moral applications of disgust (which I'll cover eventually). For now I would say the specific problem of creating an eerie almost-human through description might be solvable, sometimes, through quirks of dialogue that betray a failure of empathy, inability to follow conversational norms, etc.

  4. I think Stuart's point is more a result of physical separation from livestock than the role of the cartoon per se. For example, most people have a mental image of a pig that is very different from that held by someone 100 years ago, because they never actually see a real pig very much anymore. Certainly not a really dirty one, usually a clean one like Babe or similar.

    100 years ago, someone who thinks about a pig-face monster would probably make it very dirty and similar to a real pig. Today, there is no reference point, so people fall back to the cartoon as a backup.

  5. I tried to think of some hybrids I found 'disgusting':

    The original film version of Mr. Hyde gives him animal qualities but he is still mostly human. He's very "ugly" and I think gets the "disgust" reaction from that.

    The animals in the Island of Doctor Moreau ('96) are much closer to the animal side of things, and really don't evoke that cartoon animal-people vibe. They're quite grotesque.

  6. Fantastic post. Right up my street.

    We can see how this disgust blends into fear and then hatred. As you say, it is because of existential fear.

    The critical action here is rejection. We want to get the things that disgust, frighten and anger us out of our sight; preferably by sending them away but if necessary by running away or destroying them.

    Why get them out of our sight? Because if we integrate them then we must necessarily adjust our world-view to make them a real possibility for our own ideal self. Changing world-views is always traumatic, especially when it might mean accepting the nondiscriminatory nature of bad fortune and the lack of a benevolent guiding force.

    Cosmic horror is horrifying because the otherness is so overwhelming that it is impossible to reject by any of the means above (the sole refuge being in madness). One is forced to confront the truth of oneself - mortal, ephemeral, made of meat and bones and nothing more, working and living in a societal construct that has no real truth... and so forth.

    Something interesting here for the modern era: now that much of our drudge work is machine rather than animal, we have the rise of the bio-mechanical as a source of horror and otherness. From the more straightforward cyborgs to the unsettling artwork of Geiger in which human and machine blend together. As with centaurs we are generally OK with cyborgs unless the detail becomes visceral enough to remind us of the dissonance between flesh and metal.

    Is this parallel because - as you say - we are familiar enough with the nonhuman workforce to understand them and so become shocked when that which we are close to becomes too close altogether? Or perhaps it is a dualism thing - using the symbolism of manual labour it forces us to examine whether or not there is separation of mind and body, physical and sublime, being and nothingness.