Monday, April 4, 2011

Carolyn Korsmeyer's "Savoring Disgust"

Carolyn Korsmeyer is Professor of Philosophy at the University at Buffalo. She is the author of numerous works in philosophy, especially aesthetics and philosophy of art, including Making Sense of Taste: Food and Philosophy (1999) and Gender and Aesthetics: An Introduction (2004). She is a past president of the American Society for Aesthetics.

Korsmeyer applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Savoring Disgust: The Foul and the Fair in Aesthetics, and reported the following:
Whether in scientific, philosophical, or ordinary usage, the term “disgust” is usually taken to refer to an utterly aversive recoil from objects that are foul and contaminating. While this description captures the emotion’s undeniable force, to focus exclusively on extreme aversion ignores the subtler varieties of disgust, many of which are aroused by works of art. While a good deal of art also trades on strongly aversive responses, once we notice the nuances of disgust, additional artistic examples abound. They may be sad, scary, horrible, funny, grotesque, disturbing – and sometimes even beautiful.

Disgust has a long history of exclusion from among the emotions that art can positively arouse, for it is the one emotion that philosophers traditionally consider an uncompromising antithesis to beauty or to other forms of positive aesthetic value. Although I argue against influential theorists such as Kant who make this claim, I also find that their reasoning illuminates the immediacy and power of aesthetic disgust. By “aesthetic disgust” I do not mean being repulsed such that one closes a book, turns away, or leaves a theatre. Rather, I refer to a range of somatic reactions that register some aspect of material vulnerability – illness, death, or bodily disintegration. What intrigues me about disgust is its sensory, visceral nature – literally a gut reaction. The emotion’s distinctive physical disturbance is one of the indispensable tools by means of which works of art can convey intimately an understanding of bodily fragility.

By the time one reaches page 99 of Savoring Disgust, the argument for the uses of disgust in art has been launched. Page 99 itself is mostly taken up with a picture – one of the examples I use to propel my case for diversity in aesthetic disgust. The fact that an illustration occupies this focal page indicates something of my general approach, for I believe that philosophy of art best proceeds by beginning with particular cases that raise puzzles and prompt investigation. While certainly some general meanings of aesthetic disgust obtain, I resist unduly systematic treatments of this emotion, preferring to emphasize particular varieties manifest in individual works of art.
Learn more about Savoring Disgust at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue