Television readily and regularly produces moments of disgust, where revulsion and the fear of contamination rises up and takes one’s body over. One pushes away, or at, the techno-organic contagion as if its magical material presence must be held at bay. Or else one withdraws, withers from within, when faced with something wretched to the senses, and the cognitive and physiological processes. A cluster of worms emerging from the mouth of a rotting corpse on a crime or medical procedural drama such as Bones can turn the stomach, make one flinch and recoil, in the sickening face of it.
Disgusting Corpse from Bones
Disgust in/on television can manifest in three central but interrelated ways. First, the central characters in a fiction, or the ‘real’ people in factual programming, are or can be perceived to be disgusting, in language use, ethical behaviour, health and hygiene standards, and in their sexual choices and violent ways. Television situation comedy can operate through a disgusting repertoire of characters, while a programme such as The Walking Dead demands of its viewers to devour disgust through its relentless acts of carnography.
Second, the central characters in a fiction, or the ‘real’ people in factual programming, feel and experience disgust at the behavior and activities that surround them. One gets to see the performative cues and revolting reactions of those who bear witness to, or feel contaminated by, disgusting acts that take place in the diegetic world of the text. Characters vomit at the sight, the stench, of rotting corpses, or they gag as they watch others perform disgusting acts. As viewers, our bodies, our senses, are often aligned with these putrid moments, so we gag and retch too. Of course, there are those programmes where the response to vile characters, events, and shocking reveals is neutral, empathetic, and rational. Embarrassing Bodies is populated by Doctors and Specialists who respond to disgusting ailments and conditions with calm and professional understanding, but more on this below.
Finally, the central narrative events of a programme can produce moments of disgust, particularly around shocking violent acts, immoral confessional denouements, and through a range of health and hygiene reveals on reality television formats. In such shows, one can witness cockroaches jumping into dishes being prepared in a restaurant kitchen, or one can see (in close up) the rotten feet of a teenager on a programme such as Embarrassing Bodies, or one can get to gag at (with) the live insect eating that one finds in the bush tucker trials on I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here!
Embarrassing Bodies: Verrucae
There is a televisual aesthetics of disgust, a carefully arranged and choreographed dance of distaste where revolting context is aligned with lighting, framing, setting, sound and editing choices that all work to produce the moment(s) of revulsion. While these will be genre specific, and factual formats will employ their own codes and conventions, the aesthetics of disgust are united by a common thread. Television draws upon its own carnal and sensorial capabilities to create a space of ‘sympathetic magic’ or ‘contagion-by-representation’ (Bitton, 2008: 8). Although, for me, this is not quite a question of toxic signification but rather a dirty sensorial transmission, where the television’s own breathing technological skin touches ours, in a phenomenal phenomenological exchange.
Disgust is sensory and cross-modal: smells, tastes, textures, and environments can offend us, can turn our insides out, in synaesthetic union. Disgust is often met with disgusting inner materials let out, or it transforms our palettes: we vomit, gas, shit, piss, or we just experience the sense or feeling of having contaminants on our lips, caking the insides of our mouths. Disgust is related to survival, to the base instincts that reject things that might harm us. Disgust is also cultural and ideological: it works off normative and moralistic assumptions and conventions, and helps construct power-saturated binary oppositions between insiders and outsiders. Disgust creates an armada of taboos that arguably hold us in their corporeal and behavioural grip, or conversely, they can be seen to bring into sensory existence the very essence of our animal beings, offering us transgressive experiences that momentarily wrench the body free from its civil docility.
Disgust can be understood to be a gatekeeper emotion; a technique or mechanism that is used to propel or keep at bay that which threatens one. It can also be understood as an anti-democratic force that opens up the body to new experiences and sensations that are usually repressed or denied expression. Disgust can be understood to be a border-crossing emotion, a particularly hyper-charged form of affect, a type of ‘beyond’ normal experience that cuts one free from language and a stable or simply known subjectivity.
In the programme Embarrassing Bodies, everyday people with ailments and conditions that they are too embarrassed to go to their GPs with, reveal them on-screen to celebrity doctors and elite specialists. The programme is held together on a series of tensions, perhaps paradoxes. On the one hand, the conditions are felt to be so embarrassing that they cannot be shown even to their own GP. On the other, those who take part do so knowing their ailment will be publically examined, diagnosed and treated, and visible to millions of viewers. The show and its participants collapse or reverse the private/public dichotomy usually associated with the doctor-patient relationship, and yet it maintains a discursive formation, formed over a century ago, where patients were/are placed before a wall of (male) doctors and physicians as test cases. Power is still given to the Doctor, but also to the army of DIY Doctor’s at home, conjured up in this modern display of the medical panopticon, and symptomatic of the demotic turn in culture more generally where access to the media is great but where political power might still be weak (Turner, 2012). Those who appear on the show are also positioning themselves within the axis of celebrity culture, where their (very minor) fame is achieved because of their disgusting ailments.
A further tension or paradox is also revealed in the show. On the one hand, the disgusting conditions that are aired are done so to normalize the ailment and to create a culture of self-awareness and openness about body problems, so that in turn people treat themselves and get treated. The show suggests that disgusting body problems are common and shouldn’t be considered to be disgusting at all. On the other hand, Embarrassing Bodies’ narrative and aesthetic framework produces moments of disgust, and revels in them, even as it tries to efface its own fetishistic impulses. The programme shows us the condition in micro close up; it is opened up, inspected, turned over; and as it is done so its sensorial qualities rise up in the image as smell, taste, touch, and rancid feeling. The pleasure in the show, then, is two-fold: pleasure through its disgusting revelations; and pleasure through a narrative ‘make-over’ arc where conditions and ailments are treated, repaired, healed, ultimately purified. The show opens up the fibers and intensities of disgust and yet ultimately neutralizes and contains them. Dirt, disease, the enlarged, the raw, the putrid are ultimately swept away. The body is clean again, normal, so that civil life can go on again.
One can read Embarrassing Bodies as a programme that is ultimately conservative, working in the service of normative medical and behavioural practices and expectations, which in turn crafts a good and productive citizen, and keeps the commercial streams of the medico-pharmaceutical industries flowing. Disgust works to shore up boundaries and borders that have been breeched, while allowing viewers to experience the catharsis associated with that which is normally repressed, denied representation and sensorial expression. To the contrary, one can read Embarrassing Bodies as anti-democratic, as a text that opens up the body to all the carnal juices of revulsion and disgust. The narrative suppression of disgust, its containment by text’s closure, can be argued to be not enough to deny its sensorial capacity, which continues to leak across and between the borders of the text. Disgust re-makes the body as animal, so that it is uncivil again, beyond signification, so that we reside in the belly of the beast.
Shows such as Embarrassing Bodies invite disgust into the domestic space, the home, transforming that space into a carnival arena. This is dirt that is not so easily brushed under the carpet so ubiquitous it is in terms of television scheduling. When these shows are watched on mobile devices, in public spaces, such as trams, trains, stations and cafes, disgust is situated right in the palm of the hands. One touches the contagion the moment the link is downloaded or streamed. One cannot so easily push away that which offends one since the two skins meet in one time and space. This contagion is let loose, runs free across the air, so that disgust becomes public, everywhere, a virus in the network, affecting us all, either loosening the borders of taste and decency, or normalizing disgust so that it looses its power to ultimately let us experience our bodies as animal-like things.
When I watch Embarrassing Bodies I push away at the images, pull at my eyes; turn my face from the screen. I feel nausea, I can smell, taste, touch the fungi, the swelling, the legion, the leakage. My skin crawls, I crawl into my skin. I shout at the screen, ask it to stop. What I cannot do is turn off, look away fully from the screen, because the pleasure is too great. I love feeling my body in this way; love that my senses are so awfully activated; love it that disgust has entered the home of my body. I love to feel disgust.
Sean Redmond is an Associate Professor of Media and Communication at Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia. He writes on stardom and celebrity, science fiction, screen aesthetics, and authorship. His latest book on The cinema of Takeshi Kitano comes out later this year with Columbia University Press.
Sean Redmond, Deakin University, Melbourne: email@example.com