Disgust as Class-Based Emotional Script

I always find applications of Bourdieu’s theoretical and conceptual apparatus extremely interesting especially when they address subjects not often discussed and yet related to social class distinctions. This is the case with Stephanie Lawler’s article, "Disgusted Subjects: The Making of Middle-Class Identities" in a 2005 issues of The Sociological Review .

Lawler starts her article with Orwell’s provocative quote, "the lower classes smell" to introduce her discussion of the social production of the alterity of working classes for the middle classes. This quote summarizes a central point of Lawler’s article, that the middle classes are disgusted by the very existence of the working classes. Such disgust is constitutive of the essence (as socially produced) of the middle class habitus. Such an habitus is constituted in opposition to an "Other", the working class. The identity of being middle class is tied to being opposed to "these disgusting people." And things haven’t changed much since Orwell’s times: the middle class is still disgusted by the lives of the working classes.

"Class, in this context, is conceptualized as a dynamic process which is the site of political struggle, rather than as a set of static and empty positions waiting to be filled by indicators such as employment and housing. It is the result of a historical process in which the bourgeoisie became a ‘class for itself’ through distinguishing itself from its twin others – the aristocracy and the poor (later to be designated ‘the working class/es)." (430)

Lawler focuses on comments made about the working classes in the British media, journalism, popular writing and academic texts produced by what Lawler calls the "public bourgeoisie", a category with enough cultural capital to authoritatively produce a doxa as regards what working class people are like.

"The issue here is not simply about middle-class people ‘looking down on’ working-class people. Such understandings work to produce working-class people as abhorrent and as foundationally ‘other" to a middle-class existence that is silently marked as normal and desirable. But – and more fundamentally for my argument here – they also work to produce middle-classed identities that rely on not being the repellent and disgusting ‘other’." (431)

Working-class people may hold negative views of the middle classes but their dominated status and therefore lack of social power prevent them from producing the middle classes as other. It is a mark of dominant social class dynamic power to be able to generate dominated categories as outsider to one’s norm.

How is this accomplished? For Lawler, through two distinctive narratives:

  1. The narrative of lack
  2. The narrative of decline

The narrative of lack refers to the fact that the working classes are produced as lacking something: taste, manners, appreciation for "beautiful things" (defined as what the dominant classes see as beautiful) and therefore, a lack of what constitutes humanity, perceived as the Cartesian distinction between mind and body. The working classes are often defined as too much on the bodily side, too much on the material side. Indeed, their very appearance is repellent, they behavior involves a repulsive embodied materiality: they are promiscuous, they eat badly, all of which reflect a lack of control over bodily impulses, which can also be seen in undersocialized anti-social behavior.

In this sense, the working classes are not just the traditional "dangerous classes" but the pathological classes, endowed with endless faults. They are the irresponsible teenage mothers (who, of course, had inappropriate sex) while the fathers are potential deadbeats. They are unable to socialize their children into the proper value system. In a classical case of double bind, they either neglect their children by not interacting with them enough (not enough middle-class quality time), and their interactions are also seen as pathological (too much physical discipline, not enough mental stimulation). As a result, working-class youths as also perceived as lacking in decency understood as real humanity.

This narrative of lack is often the one informing social policy by assuming that the working classes suffer from deficits.

The narrative of decline is one that sets the current working classes apart from the working classes of yore, in typical nostalgic narrative:

"There was once a respectable working class which held progressive principles and knew its assigned purpose (which, from the Left at least, was to bring about social change). This class has now disappeared, to be either absorbed into an allegedly-expanding middle class, or consigned to a workless and workshy underclass which lacks taste, is politically retrogressive, dresses badly, and above all, is prey to a consumer culture (from which the middle class is presumably immune)." (434)

This narrative coincides with deindustrialization as the "good" working class was the blue-collar working class of unionized industries. The introduction of the category of underclass creates a distinction between deserving and undeserving poor. With the underclass, any notion of working class respectability is evacuated and discourse of disgust is easier to apply.

And the discourse of disgust on the working class is intrinsically a gendered discourse. Working class women are especially produced as disgusting. By definition, working class women do not conform to the standards of middle-class femininity taken as standard. This is not new, one can find such expressions all the way back through the Industrial Revolution.

"Since respectability is coded as an inherent feature of ‘proper’ femininity, working-class women must constantly guard against being disrespectable, but no matter how carefully they do this, they are always at risk of being judged as wanting by middle-class observers. And this is a double jeopardy since if working-class women can be rendered disgusting by disrespectability and excess, they have also been rendered comic or disgusting in their attempts to be respectable." (435-6)

Indeed, as Lawler indicates, the "good" and "respectable" working class was a masculinized working class whereas the underclass is often understood as a feminized universe (where not working, for both men and women, is a feminine trait… the deadbeat dad and the pregnant teenager or the welfare queen). And in all the data analyzed by Lawler, there is a definite emphasis on bodies, especially women’s bodies represented as disgusting (through the fake perms, or any trait revealing a poor diet or lack of control, all the way to pregnancies and emphasis on women’s bodies are only used for reproduction). A working class woman is over-sexual and over-fertile.

There is also a double jeopardy in the way the working class is racialized: in the Nineteenth Century, they were not white enough. Now, they are too white, being depicted as racists (we all remember the way the Obama campaign used such rhetoric). Similarly, where the Victorian era working class was disgusting in its lack of gender respectability, working classes are now seen as holding reactionary gender views. They can never win.

The final touch is to disguise the social dominance aspect of all this. The fact that the working classes are produced as disgusting in all these different respects is a work of production by dominant classes but such work is always masked. In this case, according to Lawler, it is disguised through the discourse individual and familial pathology presented as the root of the repellent aspects of the working classes.

"Representations of working-class people are marked by disapproval or disdain, not for the ‘objective’ markers of their position, but for (what are perceived to be) their identities. Everything is saturated with meaning: their clothes, their bodies, their houses, all are assumed to be markers of some ‘deeper’, pathological form of identity. This identity is taken to be ignorant, brutal and tasteless." (437)

At the very same time that class is denied in the explanation for alleged pathologies, these pathologies are depicted as an entire social class.

Ultimately, what we are talking about here is symbolic violence, a core concept in Bourdieu’s approach to social relations.

Finally, Lawler explores disgust as an underexamined socially-scripted emotion. Disgust is always an emotion triggered by a violation, here a violation of taste.

"Disgust is an immensely powerful indicator of the interface between the personal and the social. The experience of disgust indicates par excellence that one on ‘in the grip of a norm whose violation we are witnessing or imagining’ (Miller, 1997: 194) and this grip is immediately felt within the body – it ‘makes one sick’ or ‘makes one vomit’ as Bourdieu says (1986: 486). Feeling so personal, so visceral, it nevertheless invokes collective sentiments. It relies on an affirmation that ‘we are not alone in our relation to the disgusting object’ (Probyn, 2000: 131)" (438)

Disgust involves a social relation between the disgusted as subject and the object of disgust. By definition, being objectified is a form of symbolic violence and being able to objectify an entire category of people as disgusted is a form of social power.

Being disgusted is also an assertion of (dominant ) identity through the affirmation of a strong boundary between subject and object of disgust. Being disgusted by the social behavior and practices of a mass (as indifferentiated, unindividualized category) is an affirmation of one’s humanity as transcendence of bodily impulses and functions. Where the working classes are stuck at a less than human stage of sensual pleasures (oversexed, eating with one’s fingers), the middle-class asserts its full humanity through manners and good taste (what counts as good taste, again, is a matter of social definition only accessible to dominant classes). And when good manners and tastes define humanity, then, lacking them defines one as less human.

"For Bourdieu, it is an effect of social relations in which the middle classes have the authority to make their definitions work. What gets to count as ‘tasteful’ is effected by those with the social power to name. It is possible to see, then, how definitions of aesthetics (and their appreciation) become mapped on to broader classed relations." (439)

Finally, disgust is also an indicator of proximity. One cannot be disgusted by what is physically and socially distant. Disgust can only arise at witnessing, in one form or another, violating behavior. Disgust then serves to reassert social distance and maintain the barriers between the classes. Taste is such a barrier: it is both a quality that marks one’s identity, it is also a price of entry into certain social classes and a norm that can be applied to other (lower) social classes which can then be found wanting.

A very important and rich article.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *