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Rouven Brinkmann (Osnabrück)

"Stories That Use You Up": Disgust in the Works of Chuck Palahniuk

"Stories That Use You Up": Disgust in the Works of Chuck Palahniuk
Disgust has garnered increasing interest in recent years, both in works of fiction as well as in scholarly research. It has become a central element of literary and cinematic genres – e.g. the increasingly popular horror subgenre that has become known as 'torture porn' –, yet the employment of disgust for disgust's sake, i.e. the use of disgusting objects to satisfy an audience's macabre urges, misrecognizes the emotion's aesthetic potential. For transgressional author Chuck Palahniuk, disgust is both a tool for "reaching a transcendent point" in his narratives, a means to manipulate his readership's affective reaction to them as he sees fit, as well as an object of aesthetic appreciation in and on itself. As such, disgust and its objects are constantly re-evaluated in a meta-discourse that spans the entirety of Palahniuk's literary output. This article will trace and analyze the development of this discourse in Palahniuk's fictions as a means of assessing the intricate construction of disgust within them.

1 Introduction

After a long period of general academic disregard, disgust has garnered increasing attention from across the board of academia in recent years. The reasons for this sudden interest are manifold. For one, disgust with its idiosyncratic affect program and prominent moral constituent is one of the few emotions that is considered to be unique to humans; that is, even if we assume that animals other than humans have the capabilities to recognize disgusting objects and be affected by them, cultural evolution has rendered 'human disgust' quite distinct from its evolutionary forebear.

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Disgust can be further distinguished from other emotions by its viscerality, not only due to the nature of its objects that will be discussed in detail below, but also due to the typical affective reaction and its intrinsic linkage to sickness, aversion and nausea.

Herein, we can also discern the reasoning behind the aforementioned reservations to subjecting disgust to academic scrutiny even as affective and cognitive sciences had been on the rise: disgust and its objects, or so the consensus seemed, are unpleasant, not worthy of admiration or even as much as a second glance (cf. Korsmeyer 2008: 369). Furthermore, those who take more than a fleeting interest in disgust run the danger of being contaminated by its disgusting properties, and thus to become disgusting themselves.

The abolishment of such notions and the ensuing newly garnered interest has spawned a number of approaches to the emotion of disgust from the fields of, among others, psychology, cognitive and affective sciences, evolutionary biology, and philosophy, some of which are complementary and could very well be unified in an attempt to establish an all-encompassing theory of disgust. Still, even in the face of these yet to be homogenized theories, the primary question posed by authors of disgust – as titles such as William Ian Miller's The Anatomy of Disgust, or Daniel Kelly's The Nature and Moral Significance of Disgust suggest – is largely the same: what is disgust, and how can we approach its many constituents?

Kelly approaches disgust from an approximate Darwinian-evolutionary perspective that situates it as an emotion evolved from two distinct mechanisms; firstly, an aversion mechanism that serves the purpose of preventing the incorporation of toxins and harmful substances, and secondly, another such mechanism to protect against parasites and (bearers of) disease (cf. Kelly 2011: 43). Within our contemporary emotion of disgust, there still resides this attribution of harmfulness to its objects even in the face of the general harmlessness of some of these objects.

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Paul Rozin opts for a similar approach; while he denies Kelly's entanglement hypothesis that sees disgust as having evolved from two distinct aversion mechanisms, he likewise considers disgust to have (culturally) evolved from preventing harm to the body by incorporation of physical objects of disgust to preventing 'harm to the soul' and upholding social order (Rozin 2010: 763-764). Here, Rozin touches upon a moral level of disgust that also figures quite prominently in Aurel Kolnai's original work as well as Miller's Anatomy, and that undoubtedly deserves some attention. Further, Rozin provides a comprehensive index of universal elicitors of disgust (for North Americans) that – in juxtaposition with Aurel Kolnai's original index – will serve as an apt foundation for my own definition of what constitutes an object of disgust.

Perhaps the most salient feature of disgust is its duality, its "macabre allure" (Korsmeyer 2008: 120). While Miller aptly describes disgust as "the most embodied and visceral of emotions" (Miller 1997: xii), Korsmeyer argues that "the overwhelming affect of disgust is aversion", albeit "with a backward glance lingering over and even savoring its object" (Korsmeyer 2008: 373). From this inceptive point that situates disgust within a framework of simultaneous attraction and aversion, Korsmeyer argues for its (objects') aesthetic potential, for the possibility of transforming the lowly and generally unpleasant object of disgust into an object that may be aesthetically appreciated. This peculiarity of disgust likewise deserves to be considered in some detail.

While the occurrence of objects of disgust is fairly common in contemporary literature, few popular authors are as readily embracive of them as Chuck Palahniuk. His works tend to portray a multitude of both physically and morally disgusting objects such as minutely detailed processes of decay, mutilation, twisted sexuality, moral deprivation, and general transgression of (western) taboos. As such, they are already suitable objects of study when it comes to the question how disgust and its affect program operate in works of fiction. Palahniuk, however, does not portray disgust for its own sake and does not merely rely on the disgusting object's inherent "macabre allure", but goes beyond such notions in an attempt to, as he expresses it, "reach a transcendent point, a romantic point, […] through a lot of acts of profanity" (Glaister 2004).

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In other words, Palahniuk attempts to use the disgusting object not solely to elicit the emotional reaction of disgust in the reader, but – in conjunction with a variety of other emotionally charged objects – to cause an emotional reaction that transgresses and transcends 'simple' emotions as can be expressed in words such as 'disgust', 'sadness', 'compassion', or 'fear' in an effort to maximize the universal emotional involvement of the reader – to "reach a transcendent point" – with his fictions.

While this holds true to an extent for all of his novels, it is nowhere near as apparent as it is in his horror trilogy of Lullaby, Diary and Haunted, all of which are not only filled to the brim with potential and universal objects of disgust, but likewise with dark humor, philosophical considerations, and aesthetic insight which serve to undermine the 'appropriate' affective reaction of the reader towards its objects of disgust. This fact, however, does by no means cancel out what might be deemed 'appropriate' reactions of disgust; on the contrary. During the public readings of his short story "Guts", which is part of the Haunted narrative, reportedly dozens of audience members have fainted as Palahniuk was reading the arguably most disgusting parts of the story. However, in the more intimate, personal act of reading his books, such overwhelming affect does not necessarily take place, and instead, the objects of disgust, of horror, of humor, the objects of philosophical and aesthetic appreciation, are merged and elicit a response in the reader that, indeed, transgresses emotional boundaries, and consequently cannot be described by our standard set of terms to describe emotional states.

2 Disgust

Just what do we mean when we refer to something as 'disgusting' or an 'object of disgust'? To answer this question and to consider the implications that arise with such preliminary definitions, I will build on the foundation laid by early 20th century phenomenologist Aurel Kolnai and take into account a number of more recent views – among them those expressed in the aforementioned works by William Ian Miller, Daniel Kelly, and Paul Rozin. I will consider the difference between materially and morally disgusting objects (if there is any), provide an index of what may considered as objects of disgust, and contemplate the features that make such objects disgusting.

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Furthermore, I will describe the typical affective reaction to these objects (i.e. the disgust affect) and consider its aesthetic potential that goes along with the "macabre allure" that Kolnai ascribes to the disgusting object.

2.1 The Objects of Disgust

In his initial observations, Kolnai distinguishes between two individual types of disgusting objects, namely physical and moral ("physisch Ekelhaftes" and "moralisch Ekelhaftes"). This distinction notwithstanding, he already seems to suspect that such a clear-cut dichotomy can impossibly be accounted for. To quote from his introduction to the morally disgusting object:

Ein Versuch zur Einteilung der hier in Betracht kommenden Gegenstandstönungen des Ekels kann noch weniger auf Evidenz Anspruch erheben als die oben durchgeführte Gruppierung der immerhin schärfer umrissenenen Gegenstandseinheiten des physischen Ekels. (Kolnai 2007: 39)

By acknowledging that the common denominators which determine his grouping of morally disgusting objects do not make a claim for definite evidence, Kolnai also unwittingly acknowledges that the very classification of disgust into arbitrary groups such as "physical" and "moral" is to be dismissed. After all, there is sound reason that we use the same affective terms and forms of speech in reaction to both "physically" and "morally disgusting objects" when we say something along the lines of "That makes me sick!" (Miller 1997: xi); and indeed, scholars have argued (cf. Rozin 2010: 763) that there really is no difference in terms of affective quality between physical objects of disgust, such as "Verfall eines lebendigen Körpers, Verwesung, Zersetzung, Leichengeruch, im allgemeinen der Übergang des Lebendigen in den Zustand des Toten, […] Exkremente, […] Sekrete, […] Schmutz, […] Kriechtiere […]" (Kolnai 2007: 29-38), and those that disgust us on a moral level (cf. Kelly 2011: 29-30) , such as Überdrußzustände, […] Blutschande, […] Überlebendigkeit, […] ungeordnete Sexualität, […] Überverfeinerung oder Schwulstigkeit, […] Lügen, Verlogenheit, […] Falschheit, […] Korruption, […] Charakterlosigkeit (Kolnai 2007: 39-47).

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While Kolnai's list provides a comprehensive overview of what might be defined as an object of disgust, the intrinsic fuzziness of his categorization principles should already be evident: the decay of a body is closely linked to the corruption of the human mind; secretion is an inherent part of sexuality, blurring the boundaries between its physical disgust and the moral disgust of disordered sexuality and incest. The expected affective reaction to all these disgusting objects is universal, varying only in the degree of disgust that they elicit. Furthermore, cultural differences in the perception of the disgusting objects are to be expected in both categories, and not only in the objects Kolnai ascribes to be morally disgusting, as might be initially expected.1 It will be necessary to abandon Kolnai's distinction and treat both morally and physically disgusting objects as a uniform phenomenon that elicits the same affective reaction in varying degrees. By doing so, I also closely adhere to Miller's anatomy of disgust who, although he discusses moral and material disgust separately, draws no clear-cut distinction between the two and likewise asserts the similarity of the affect that they both elicit (cf. Miller 1997: 180-181).

Paul Rozin proposes another set of domains that have the potential to elicit disgust, avoiding the pitfall of personal and cultural subjectivity by limiting it to North Americans exclusively; further, his list has less overlap than Kolnai's and at the same time largely sidesteps moral judgment by covering broad inclusive domains instead of specific objects:

For North Americans, elicitors of disgust come from nine domains: food, body products, animals, sexual behaviors, contact with death or corpses, violations of the exterior envelope of the body (including gore and deformity), poor hygiene, interpersonal contamination (contact with unsavory human beings) and certain moral offenses.2 (Rozin 2010: 757)

Like Kolnai, Rozin makes a rough distinction between physical and moral objects; yet this peculiarity needs not pose a problem. Some overlap is to be expected in such categories (for example, bodily violation invariably brings forth certain body products), and thus the participation in an act that involves an object from one of the eight former domains might readily constitute a moral offense. Again, I will consider the affect they elicit as uniform. These minor issues notwithstanding, if not stated otherwise, when I refer to an object as 'disgusting' in the following, it can be safely assumed that it comes from one of Rozin's established domains.

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2.2 The Disgust Affect

When talking about the disgust affect, a proper definition of the symptoms, the anatomy of this affective state, is all but necessary. To reiterate, Miller describes disgust as "the most embodied and visceral of emotions" (Miller 1997: xii); Korsmeyer, building upon this assumption and on Kolnai's inceptive observations regarding the macabre allure of the disgusting object adds that "the overwhelming affect of disgust is aversion […] with a backward glance, lingering over and even savoring its object" (Korsmeyer 2008: 373). While the latter part of this observation, the "savoring [of the] object", is certainly not present in every single instance in which we are in an affective state of disgust, the allure of the disgusting object should still not be underestimated. As is the case with fear and terror, disgust likewise appeals to us in a contradictory way, unifying aversion and attraction in its loathsome yet endearing objects.

I would argue that this appeal should not be regarded as uniform; that is, the answer to the question if and why we find a disgusting object appealing may differ in individual instances in which we perceive it; likewise, the savory quality of the object may differ. As with any other emotion, closeness to the object – in both physical and emotional terms – plays an important role here: while people may (and unfortunately, commonly do) anticipatively linger over and savor the sight of a car crash that is physically and emotionally removed from their selves in an attempt to catch a glimpse of the potentially disgusting results, it seems unimaginable that someone who was physically or emotionally involved in the incident – either because they were part of the accident or because they had a relation to the victims – would elicit the same emotive response and savor the object. In such cases, the affective state of disgust may be properly described as visceral aversion, an innermost desire to remove oneself from the disgusting object.

When considering the emotion of disgust, it makes sense to follow Rozin's distinction between its physiological, expressive, and qualitative components. Whereas disgust can be aptly described as the initial affective reaction of visceral aversion induced by perceiving a disgusting object, there is a physiological response that stems from this initial aversion. As Miller puts it,

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[Terms of disgust] all convey a strong sense of aversion to something perceived as dangerous because of its power to contaminate, infect, or pollute by proximity, contact, or ingestion. All suggest the appropriateness, but not the necessity, of accompanying nausea or queasiness, or of an urge to recoil and shudder from creepiness (Miller 1997: 2).

When we perceive something to be disgusting and have an appropriate affective reaction of disgust, we devise avoidance strategies to inhibit the contact with and subsequent contamination by the disgusting object. We tend to feel sick or nauseous as a result of this affect. Rozin adds to this physiological state of nausea (i.e. muscle contractions in preparation for the expulsion of a contaminating entity) a deceleration of the heart rate, and possibly increased salivation (cf. Rozin 2010: 758-759). These are involuntary bodily reactions, physiological components of the preceding emotion, and should not be confused with emotion/affect proper. To quote directly from Levenson's observations on the autonomic response to disgust,

[t]he association of heart rate deceleration (or lack of acceleration) with disgust suggests a quite different cardiovascular state than for the negative emotions of anger, fear, and sadness. Considerable parasympathetic activation likely occurs in disgust (as would be indicated by increased salivation and increased gastrointestinal activation), which could produce a vagally mediated slowing of heart rate (Levenson 1992: 25).

Considering what we assume about the function of disgust as a mechanism controlling and inhibiting the ingestion of harmful substances, the physiological response that Levenson describes here seems apt for its facilitation. The attendant "heart rate deceleration" inhibits the rate at which harmful substances spread through the body; visceral nausea and "increased salivation and increased gastrointestinal activation" serve the function of preparing the expulsion of harmful substances from oral cavity and stomach, both of which are prone to being directly affected by the incorporation of a disgusting object due to the central role they play in ingestion and digestion.

The primarily facial expressive component that denominates disgust is so commonly known and observed that there is hardly any need to go into great detail concerning its features: the upper lip is pulled back and nose and brow are wrinkled, the mouth may be opened and the tongue extended; Kelly calls this the "gape face" (Kelly 2011: 16) that serves the culturally important function of "signaling the presence of parasites and infectious disease to others" (Kelly 2011: 55).

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However, this expressive component likewise corresponds to the assumed function of disgust to serve as a safeguard against harmful substances. The wrinkling of the nose is a direct consequence of the involuntary obstruction of the nasal passage that in turn serves the purpose of preventing olfactory incorporation of (further) contaminants (cf. Kelly 2011: 47). The characteristic sneer is likewise attendant to the obstruction of the throat that serves to prevent oral incorporation. Finally, this "gape face mimics the facial movements that precede or accompany actual retching" (Kelly 2011: 16), i.e. the expressive component anticipates and prepares for the expulsion of the disgusting object.

The qualitative component of disgust has been described as an attendant feeling of aversion, uneasiness, and revulsion3 (cf. Rozin 2010: 759; Kelly 2011: 16) and is roughly congruent with that which I have previously referred to as an urge to remove oneself from the disgusting object's presence. Now, referring to this state as a 'feeling' might lead us to believe the qualitative component of disgust to be something fuzzy, abstract, and immeasurable – after all, the everyday use of the word all but subsumes these qualities. Here, however, we need to understand 'feeling' as a particular mental state designed to serve a particular function. Indeed, as early as 1997, Phillips et al. "have demonstrated activation of the anterior insula, with its identified role as gustatory cortex, during appreciation of visual stimuli depicting expressions of disgust" (Phillips et al. 1997: 495). The qualia of disgust is thus not merely a feeling in the abstract sense in which the term is commonly employed, but can be considered as a particular and measurable mental state.

All of the aforementioned components of the disgust affect seem to be in perfect agreement with the function that they serve: promoting immediate removal of or from the disgusting object. It is all of these components that I refer to when I speak of an affective disgust response in the following.

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2.3 Aesthetic Disgust

The term 'aesthetic disgust' may appear contradictory at first glance; after all, as noted above, "the objects of disgust are typically lowly, not objects of admiration" (Korsmeyer 2008: 369), which creates more than one problem for presuming their aesthetic quality. First of all, the very features and anatomy of the disgusting object as well as its overwhelming affect of aversion that have been discussed in detail above seem to cancel out any aesthetic pleasure that could potentially be drawn from it; after all, why should we linger on an object for an extended period of time if it is potentially harmful to our very selves and that is likewise unsavory and unpleasant to our senses? Moreover, as Kolnai, Miller and many other scholars of disgust have noted, people who get into whatever contact with the disgusting object – especially those who willingly do so – run the risk of becoming (or being regarded as) themselves disgusting, since the apparent lack of aesthetic pleasures to be derived from such lowly objects contaminates whomever shows an interest in them. In very simple terms, if we show an interest in the features of, for example, fecal matter, we will soon ourselves be regarded as disgusting due to our prolonged lingering on and interest in the disgusting object.

Granted, the lowliness and social taboo of the disgusting object makes arguing for its aesthetic quality somewhat more challenging than for objects that elicit affective reactions such as amusement, sadness or even hate; for this reason, the existence of any form of aesthetically appreciable disgust has been denied up until the early 20th century (cf. Menninghaus 1999: 54-55), and scholarly research in this field is sparse when compared to other aesthetic affects. However, as has already been noted, a certain macabre allure of the disgusting object cannot be denied. Literary scholar Robert Rawdon Wilson supports this notion, stating that the experience of disgust constitutes "both a hateful degradation and a potentially transcendent moment" (Wilson 2002: 252); if we are to take such a primal allure for granted, it is only a small step toward the appreciation of the aesthetic quality of the object that on first glimpse seems to excite nothing but aversion.

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Again, I will not make an argument for a uniform appreciation of disgust as an aesthetically pleasing affect, but instead consider merely one form out of many in which affective disgust might be considered to be aesthetically appreciable. Other such forms of aesthetic or even 'sublime' disgust have been proposed by Korsmeyer, yet they are hardly applicable to the works at hand; therefore, I attempt to uncover and analyze the mechanisms of aesthetic disgust that are at work within Palahniuk's narratives instead of applying existing (yet lacking) theories of aesthetic disgust upon them.

3 Disgust in Palahniuk's Works

Disgust and Chuck Palahniuk undeniably form a pair, as is to be expected from a writer of transgressive fiction. From his very first novel, Fight Club (in which, amongst others, we find descriptions of restaurant employees deliberately contaminating food with various bodily excretions), disgust and disgusting objects have been playing a central role in Palahniuk's oeuvre. Survivor sees the change of the protagonist's body into a grotesquely beautiful messianic avatar; Invisible Monsters draws heavily on the medical details of its protagonists facial mutilation; Choke features the disgusting potential of food and sexuality (sometimes in unison); in Rant, Palahniuk goes into minute, visceral detail of a devastating rabies epidemic; Snuff takes place in the waiting room for a record pornographic film shooting; Pygmy has multiple scenes of extreme violence whose effectiveness is only amplified by the narrator's medical parlance; Tell-All implies various scenarios for the demise of its aging protagonist; and finally, Damned and its sequel, Doomed, paint a disgust-centered image of hell with, among others, a literal lake of aborted fetuses.

The above list should provide sufficient proof that the representation of disgusting objects is a definitive recurrent feature in Palahniuk's body of works. But to what end are these objects utilized? Palahniuk himself attempts to answer this question in an interview with the Guardian, from which I have already quoted in the introduction: "I'm always trying to reach a transcendent point, a romantic point, but reach it in a really unconventional way, a really profane way. To get to that romantic, touching, heartbreaking place, but through a lot of acts of profanity."

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Palahniuk does not aim at exciting mere disgust in his readership, but instead to elicit an affective reaction transgressing and transcending the rather arbitrary boundaries between individual affective states, not unlike the romantic notion of the sublime. This 'sublime disgust,' the manner in which Palahniuk utilizes disgusting objects to elicit a transcendent affective state, is, however, distinct from Korsmeyer's "sublate" (Korsmeyer 2008: 367), which on the one hand is applicable primarily to diegetic instances of emotional experience, and on the other hand fails to account for affective reactions other than disgust that likewise contribute to the emotionally transcendent quality of the reader's affective reaction.

Still, there are major differences even among the three works that I am concerned with in the role that disgust and disgusting objects play within their respective narrative, which makes it worthwhile to look at every single one of them individually before attempting to provide a more comprehensive account of the significance of disgust in and to Palahniuk's body of works.

3.1 Lullaby

Lullaby tells the story of Carl Streator, a journalist who, while investigating a series of cases of sudden infant death syndrome, comes across a book containing a culling song, a chant with the power to kill anyone who hears it. After memorizing it and (more or less involuntarily) killing a number of people, Streator sets out on a cross-country road trip to destroy every existing copy of the book.

The primary object of disgust in Lullaby is, as Palahniuk refers to it, "postmortem sexual intercourse" (Palahniuk, 2003: 179). Streator accidentally kills both his wife and infant child with the culling song and, after awakening next to his wife and not noticing that she is already dead, he proceeds to have sex with her, only realizing much later what he has done:

The loose smile on her face, the way her mouth came open at the last moment and her head sunk deep into the pillow, she was so quiet. It was the best it had been since before Katrin was born. […] That was my last really good day. It wasn't until I came home from work that I knew the truth.
Gina was still lying in the same position. (178)

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The reader, however, in a distinct moment of dramatic irony, already knows or at least suspects that Streator's wife has been dead the entire time. Before this passage, the narrator foreshadows that "[t]he police report doesn't say how warm my wife, Gina, felt when I woke up that morning" (178); also, the fact that his family has died prior to the events of the narrative is already known to the reader at that point. The passiveness of his wife during the sexual act provides the final clue to make the disgusting quality of the passage obvious and also immediate, for we as readers perceive the object as disgusting from beginning to end (with only a hint of ambiguity to it), whereas Streator is unaware of the disgusting quality of his acts.

And indeed, the disgusting object here is a very prototypical one, unifying the living (Streator's thriving sexuality) and the dead (the corpse of his wife) into a liminal object that appalls us in every conceivable way. Kolnai's "ungeordnete Sexualität" and Rozin's categories of "sexual behaviors" and "contact with death or corpses" should be reiterated here, for our moral belief in the necessity of consensuality between two sexual partners could hardly be undermined any more than it is in this scene. Furthermore, the inherent procreative function of sexuality is here transformed into its opposite: Carl Streator's seed does not produce life, it merely defiles the corpse of his wife, it foreshadows the process of decay in which her corpse will be broken down to nourish and sustain micro-organisms, and in the process, Streator also defiles himself. His disgusting act – involuntary as it may have been – makes himself disgusting, albeit more so for the other diegetic characters who may be hard-pressed to believe that Streator had no idea of his wife being dead at the time – "'Don't tell me it wasn't just about the best sex you've ever had'" (235) − than for the reader. The reader may readily believe Streator's narrating persona, who has, up to that point, appeared to have been rather reliable and has presented the character of Carl Streator as more of a tragic figure who begins to succumb to the absolute power that the culling song provides him with than that of a cold-hearted killer or disgusting necrophiliac.

Returning to the immediate disgusting object/event of Streator having sex with his dead wife, the reader's expected initial affective reaction to it is neatly summed up with the term 'disgust' as it has been defined in the first chapter. What should be noted, however, is that while aversion is a central element of the emotion experienced in reading this passage, it does not seem to have the nauseating quality that commonly goes along with disgust; and indeed, aversion or disgust is not the only element that constitutes our affective reaction to it.

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By having spent a good portion of the preceding 28 chapters of Lullaby with portraying Carl Streator as a flawed yet sympathetic character, by co-experiencing his suffering and repentance, and by putting into distinct focus his ignorance of his wife being dead, our affective reaction is more likely to be one of sadness or empathy, even while we consider the act that he engages in to be disgusting. The gap between our own knowledge and Streator's ignorance places him outside of the disgusting object and causes an immediate affective reaction to the passage that transgresses mere disgust, encompassing the contextual knowledge that we have of Streator and taking shape in an affective response more akin to a conglomerate of disgust, sadness/empathy, and utmost, overwhelming incredulity given the entire situation's improbability.

Above, I relativized the narrative persona's reliability by calling it "rather reliable"; the answer as to why I use the restricting term 'rather' here is, tellingly, provided by the narrator itself when he says:

The problem with every story is you tell it after the fact. […]
Another problem is the teller. The who, what, where, when, and why of the reporter. The media bias. How the messenger shapes the facts. […]
The story behind the story. (7)

The narrative voice of Streator thus gives us ample reason to believe that he "shapes the facts" of his past self in the way he sees fit. While such knowledge or suspicion of unreliability of a homodiegetic narrative voice may potentially undermine our long-term affective stance – that likewise arises only retrospectively and by means of cognitive effort – towards its intradiegetic counterpart, it does little in regard to our immediate affective reaction to particular objects of disgust as has been outlined above.

On the other end of the spectrum, we find a true object of disgust to which the affective reaction consists of disgust proper in the character of Nash. Not only does he consciously and eagerly engage in sexual acts with dead bodies, he even uses the culling song to kill people to satiate this desire. The way the narrative voice describes his eating habits does little to countervail his disgusting quality:

Nash turns the sandwich around in his hands and licks the mustard and mayo leaked out the end. […] With his teeth, he pulls a slice of steak out of the sandwich. The meat hangs against his chin before he tosses his head back to flip it into his mouth. Chewing, he says, "Yeah, I'm a pig," and his breath is nothing but mustard. (48)

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It seems unlikely that anyone could have a sympathetic affective reaction towards Nash even remotely on par with what we feel towards Streator. Different from him, Nash's disgusting acts, his voluntary exposure to disgusting objects, actually make him disgusting, and the narrative voice reminds us of this fact constantly, his eating habits being only the most prominent example. It should be noted, however, that every single instance in which Nash engages in postmortem sexual intercourse is either implied by the narrator or told in retrospect; thus, again, it is the narrative voice, "the messenger [who] shapes the facts" and elicits the affective reaction of disgust we feel towards Nash.

While Lullaby contains a far greater number of disgusting objects than those outlined above, the two examples of Streator and Nash being exposed to and to a degree merging with the disgusting as well as the very different way in which this exposure is evaluated by the narrative voice will suffice for my purposes. The affective response of disgust – which was defined as aversion and the desire to remove oneself from the disgusting object – is certainly present here, even in response to fictional, semantically and syntactically encoded objects. However, it is not necessarily the only affective mode of response. Our general emotional investment in a character may undermine our affect of disgust and transform it into something greater, a feeling in which aversion certainly plays a role, but that likewise encompasses a major part of the emotional spectrum, such as sadness, anger or incredulity. Nash exemplifies how the narrative voice can shape a context in which similar situations or disgusting acts (here, postmortem sexual intercourse) may elicit very different affective reactions, even in the immediate situation that we find ourselves in when we read a narrative text.

3.2 Diary

Diary is framed as former artist's Misty Marie Wilmot's "coma diary" that she writes for her husband after his (alleged) failed suicide attempt. Living among her husband's relatives on Waytansea Island with her daughter Tabitha, Misty resumes her work as an artist with unprecedented mastery and becomes involved in a conspiracy that renders her art the catalyst for the island's sustained prosperity.

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With their minutely detailed anatomic description of the human skin and muscle tissue – what Kolnai might refer to when he speaks of over-liveliness ("Überlebendigkeit") or over-refinement ("Überverfeinerung") and which touch upon Rozin's categories of interpersonal contamination and violation of the exterior envelope of the body – the very first pages of Diary already set the tone for the remainder of the narrative:

Your skin comes in three basic layers. What you can touch is the stratum corneum, a layer of flat, dead skin cells pushed up by the new cells under them. What you feel, that greasy feeling, is your acid mantle, the coating of oil and sweat that protects you from germs and fungus (Palahniuk, 2003: 3).

Such an overly detailed description of our selves is likely to excite a (probably relatively mild) feeling of disgust, since it serves as a reminder of our own viscerality, of the fact that our bodies, our selves, are made up of what we would consider disgusting; that our skin is merely a (likewise disgusting) envelope that does a poor job at maintaining bodily integrity. At the same time, we are hard-pressed to deny the aesthetic quality of the passage that the above quote exemplifies. The initial feeling of disgust/aversion is undermined by a growing curiosity and a certain sense of wonder that goes along with the knowledge that we literally consist of more than meets the eye. We are forced to reflect upon not only ourselves but upon the very nature of our being in the very moment of our affective response, which is likely to transgress mere disgust. Our affective response is more akin to an immediate, visceral aesthetic appreciation of our bodies and therefore of our selves to which the rather primal affective reaction of disgust provides the spark by means of its macabre allure. The second person narration certainly contributes to this immediacy, making us as the reader part of the narrative and transforming ourselves into the object of disgust that is the subject of the minute examination in the above passage, thus eliciting a stronger affective response than could be achieved with another mode of narration. By these means, the disgusting object is transformed – while still retaining its qualities of disgust and an appropriate affective reaction of (however minuscule) aversion – into an appreciable aesthetic form that likewise elicits an affective reaction that can be aptly described as 'aesthetic disgust'.

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In Diary, disgust does not only affect the reader in a manner described above, but it is also the initiating spark for aesthetic pleasure and enthrallment by a work of art:

You talked about […] Paul Klee and the scleroderma that shrank his joints and muscles to death. Frida Kahlo and the spina bifida that covered her legs with bleeding sores. Lord Byron and his clubfoot. […] Inspiration needs disease, injury, madness (65).

Disease, injury and madness are, according to and building upon Kolnai's assumptions, objects of disgust, as are the deformities that are detailed in the above passage.4 And indeed, Misty's sublime and enthralling works of art always stem from an experience that is linked to disgust, starting with her first taking up the brush again as she is led to the ruins in the island's woods by Tabitha and Grace, who secretly administers a laxative to Misty (cf. 110-112). As Misty starts drawing, before the laxative begins to take effect, "[s]he crumpled a shitty picture of Peter she tried to draw from memory. She crumpled a picture of Tabbi. Then, a unicorn" (114-115). She is unable to create anything aesthetically pleasing on a whim without any sort of inspiration. As the laxative starts to effect her, the scene of disgust is described in great detail:

The stomach cramps hit, and Misty was sweating. […] Her guts shifted, and she couldn't drop her underwear fast enough. The mess splashed around her shoes and against her legs. The smell gagged her, and Misty pitched forward […] Her chin dropped to her chest, and a double handful of pink vomit heaved out on the ground (115).

And it is after and due to this event that Misty is inspired to create her first actual work of art with many more to follow, thus providing evidence for the claim that "[i]nspiration needs disease, injury, madness", or simply a coalescence of the self with the object of disgust.

Diary builds upon this assumption in the remainder of the narrative and takes it to its extreme. In the subsequent chapters, Misty is methodically poisoned with pills containing lead, mercury and arsenic − Dr. Touchet remarking that "for an artist, chronic pain can be a gift" (131) − has her leg put into a cast after supposedly spraining her knee in a fall caused by one of the islanders, is fitted with a urinary catheter, starved, poisons herself by putting her brushes covered with lead paint into her mouth, and is fooled into believing that her daughter, Tabitha, has drowned off the island's coast, all for the sake of creating an artistic masterpiece.

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Finally, the novel sums up the purpose of Misty's suffering caused by equal amounts of pain and disgust: "The suppression of our rational mind is the source of inspiration. The muse. Our guardian angel. Suffering takes us out of our rational self-control and lets the divine channel through us" (188).

Here, disgust becomes part of a larger picture that encompasses all potentially overpowering emotions and is closely related to the notion of the sublime, albeit without the usual connotation to fear and terror. As I have argued before when I discussed the effect and affect of the passages from Lullaby, Diary argues that the mere affective response of disgust or pain, when it threatens to overpower the self, is transformed into a transgressive emotion that can be utilized as inspiration, as a source of artistic creation and aesthetic pleasure. Going beyond what Lullaby does – eliciting a mildly transgressive affective reaction in the reader – Diary further portrays Palahniuk's notion of the "transcendent point" within its intradiegetic narrative in an exaggerated manner unlikely to occur outside of the diegesis. We never get a glimpse of Misty's paintings, we are mere observers of the affective state of crippling, transcendent awe they cause in their audience, but are ourselves excluded from such a transgressive affect. In this way, Diary can be read as a meta-narrative about the transgressive affect Palahniuk strives to elicit in the readers of his work. This mode of writing is brought to its logical conclusion in the last work of his horror trilogy, Haunted.

3.3 Haunted

Haunted tells the story of a total of 18 writers of all kinds who attend old man Brandon Whittier's 'Writer's Retreat', which promises two months of absolute seclusion from the outside world and the opportunity to create a masterpiece. As the writers find themselves trapped within the decrepit theater that is the retreat, they are haunted by their past and, taking turns in telling the stories of how they got there, attempt to transform the self-inflicted suffering and mutilation within the retreat into their collective masterpiece. The novel consists of 23 short stories and 21 poems embedded into the aforementioned framing story.

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This synopsis already hints at not only the mass of disgusting objects that is to be expected from Haunted, but also at the continuation of the notion brought forth in Diary that an affective over-involvement caused by emotions such as pain and disgust may be utilized and transformed in order to derive aesthetic pleasure from them. To determine how Haunted expands on that idea, let us first take into consideration the disgusting objects to be found in the novel. The foremost objects of disgust in the framing story are the writers themselves, due to their physical and mental mutilation and the atrocities they partake or have partaken in. Their disgusting quality is aptly demonstrated in the juxtaposition of their former selves as represented within the short stories and their current, disgusting selves in the framing story.

Take for instance the Earl of Slander: before the events that made him attend Writer's Retreat, he was a journalist, and by all means a sympathetic character, an animal lover who "was blind with crying, afraid [his] dog might die" (Palahniuk, 2006: 92) with the innocuous wish to do a feature on the forgotten child actor Kenneth Wilcox, now his veterinarian. In the course of the short story, he succumbs to the pressure of sensationalist media – possibly Palahniuk's biggest pet peeve – and the promise of fame. He subsequently murders Wilcox and slanders his memory by planting child pornography on his computer. While this awards him a Pulitzer Prize and brings him the fame he so desperately seeks, it also kills his dog, who dies after eating an onion (cf. 94-98). His proximity to and the voluntary partaking in the disgusting – moral depravation, murder, sexual taboo, decadence – make him disgusting, culminating in his new self-imposed title as "The Earl of Slander," which suggests his disgusting nature in both name and being. In the Writer's Retreat, he is far past redemption, voluntarily partaking in the various abhorrent acts of mutilation, food deprivation, cannibalism, and so on, in order to create the masterpiece.

While the above observations are solely concerned with the Earl of Slander, one would reach similar conclusions with any other character. Every single one of them has been exposed to an object or act of disgust in the past which transformed them into the disgusting personae with names such as "Saint Gut-Free," "Duke of Vandals," or "Baroness Frostbite" that are on stage in the framing story.

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Their sameness, their collectivism is further implied not only by their shared goal of creating a masterpiece from their suffering, but also by means of a collective narrative voice in the framing story that at all times speaks in a first person plural "we," as exemplified by the following quotation from the very first chapter of the novel: "We were all leaving notes, that morning. Before dawn. Sneaking out on tiptoe with our suitcase down dark stairs, then along dark streets with only garbage trucks for company. We never did see the sun come up" (3). The writers are distinguishable by their title only; their status as an object of aversion and disgust is universal among them.

A notion that Haunted shares with Diary, but approaches in an entirely different manner – and in the process becomes infinitely more immediate to the reader – is the transformation of an experience of disgust into an object of aesthetic expression by means of artistic expression. Where Diary brings this point across by means of an intradiegetic representation of the aestheticization of the disgusting experience – the non-immediate, merely narrated effect and affect of thrill and awe elicited in the perceivers of Misty's paintings – Haunted creates the illusion that the diegesis itself is the immediate aesthetic realization of the disgusting experience. The writers wish to have their shared suffering turned into a masterpiece of some sort, and the fact that we actually are able to read the story of their suffering creates the illusion that they have succeeded in their goal, thereby seemingly eliminating the literal authoritative instance and making the events – and thus the affect – much more palpable and immediate to the reader.5

In its final chapters, Haunted's entire plot seems focused on this particular issue of experiencing disgust, terror, or suffering and ways of transforming and utilizing such experience. Consider, for example, Mr. Whittier's speech in the penultimate chapter: "'Telling a story is how we digest what happens to us,' Mr. Whittier says. 'It's how we digest our lives. Our experience'" (Palahniuk, 2006: 380). With these words, Mr. Whittier expresses not only the possibility of transforming traumatizing emotional experience into art, but the necessity to do so, both for the artist and the audience. Mr. Whittier emphasizes this necessity with imagery of disgust, hinting at the contamination of the self that invariably occurs when we come into contact with the disgusting object – something that has happened to each and every one of the assembled writers – saying that

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[t]hose worst parts of your life, those moments you can't talk about, they rot you from the inside out. […] But the stories that you can digest, that you can tell – you can take control of those past moments. You can shape them, craft them. Master them. And use them to your own good (380).

Diegetically speaking, the past and present experience of the writers might have transgressed mere disgust; it might have been transformed into an overwhelming affective reaction (and later, a permanent affective state) that "[rots them] from the inside out," threatens their very existence. However, Mr. Whittier suggests that if one is able to process the initial affective overwhelming, to "digest" it, the experience may be aestheticized, turned into a work of art and, most importantly, it can be "[used] to make people laugh or cry or sick. Or scared. To make people feel the way you felt. To help exhaust that past moment for them and for you. Until that moment is dead. Consumed. Digested. Absorbed" (380).

The work of art thus becomes an aestheticized imitation of the experience from which it stems, and, according to Mr. Whittier, subsequent affective reaction to the work of art has a cathartic, almost therapeutic effect in that it "[helps] exhaust that past moment for them and for you." In the end of the novel, however, this notion is completely subverted when even the last survivors of Writer's Retreat, after seemingly having digested their past and being given the opportunity of resuming their lives, choose not to do so. We are left with the implication that our past experience, even when turned into an aesthetically appreciable work of art, is not so easily digested.

However, the question remains: does Haunted elicit the appropriate reaction of disgust and aversion in response to its objects of disgust, or is the affective reaction of the reader similarly transformed as it is in case of the writers? Disgust and aversion are certainly a part of the affective reaction, as the following passage from Mrs. Clark's short story, which is basically nothing but a long-winded narration of the decomposition of her daughter, exemplifies:

It's the sound of hard rain on a concrete patio. Hail hitting the roof of a car. That's the sound of maggots, by this time thick as white rice. The microphone picks up a rip and a squeal, the sound of skin coming apart and Cassandra's guts going flat6 (353).

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It seems unlikely that such minutely detailed processes of decay would not elicit a response that has at least some likeness to disgust, possibly followed by the appreciation of the aesthetic quality that we have come to expect from the process of "life turning towards death, and […] a primitive and profuse regeneration of lower life forms that proliferate in the muck of decaying organic matter" (Korsmeyer 2008: 373) – especially considering the unusual way in which Palahniuk attempts to convey disgust. The above quotation from Haunted is thus a prime example of how the novel attempts to create aestheticized disgust proper, with other emotions playing a secondary role at best. There are times, however, that the disgusting subject matter is handled much more lighthearted and humorous. Such is the case in the following passage that takes place after The Matchmaker voluntarily has his penis cut off, and the Missing Link picks it up:

"Dibs," the Link says. He sniffs it, once, twice, his nose tipped up and his nostrils flared and almost touching the meat. He shrugs, saying, "Everything we cook in that microwave is going to taste like popcorn… "
Even the Link knows that eating a dead man's severed penis will get him extra prime-time exposure on every late-night talk show in the world (Palahniuk, 2006: 359).

The rather disturbing image of a man cooking and eating another man's severed penis is here all but devoid of the appropriate affective reaction of disgust on part of the reader, not only due to the absence of a similar diegetic response of disgust – there is no "gape" we are prone to imitate – but also because virtually every single page up to this point was filled with depravity, violence, mutilation, cannibalism and similar objects of disgust. The sheer amount of objects as well as the fact that every instance in which these objects appear seems more ridiculous and over the top than the last undermines the affective response of disgust.

The effectiveness of Haunted in terms of affect and emotional involvement, the reaching of the "transcendent point," lies chiefly in the juxtaposition of objects of disgust and other emotional elicitors such as objects of amusement, and at times the merging of the two into an object that elicits an affective response that transgresses the boundaries of emotional paradigms such as 'disgust,' 'fear,' or 'amusement.' Such a merging does not always take place, however, and the objects of disgust proper certainly elicit the appropriate affective reaction, as is the case with the minute decomposition of a human body that is even described in terms of, for example, auditive sensory input that does not readily offer itself to the experience of disgust, but makes the affect all the more effective.

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At the same time, Haunted makes a case for the aesthetic quality and appreciation of disgust, not only by presenting us with aesthetic disgusting objects, but also by implying that it is not only cathartic and therapeutic, but absolutely necessary to create art out of a disgusting, terrifying, scarring, or whatever emotionally overwhelming experience in order to be able to "digest" it, instead of being digested by it.

4 Conclusion

What is most apparent when we consider Lullaby, Diary and Haunted as subsequent literary works is their progressiveness in terms of how they approach their respective disgusting objects. Of the three, Lullaby is the most conventional: the disgusting objects in the novel are meant to elicit a certain affective response (e.g. disgust, sadness, empathy), but they are neither aestheticized nor utilized in a meta-discourse about disgust or emotion in general. As such, they can be described as prototypical affective objects in literature and arts.7 Diary approaches disgust differently. While its objects still elicit disgust in the reader, they are further used to make a statement on the capabilities of disgust in the arts as a means to elicit a sublime, transcendent, self-consuming emotional state that is unlike what can be expressed in terms of emotion, and makes the claim that emotional over-involvement, foremost caused by disgust, is mandatory if one is to create such an aesthetic work of art. Haunted further explores this notion and takes it to its extreme by posing the question what happens if an affective experience is too emotionally scarring to be even properly processed, let alone fictionalized and turned into something aesthetic.

At the same time, Haunted presents us with a multitude of disgusting objects that likewise are capable of eliciting a multitude of different affects, depending on the context in which they are used and ranging from disgust proper – often times in a very aestheticized manner – to affective states of what could be described as uncanny amusement; that is, a positive affective reaction due to the innumerability of the disgusting objects, heaped upon each other and thus canceling out the expected affective response.

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What should be noted here is, however, that the two areas – the meta-discourse about disgust and the disgust proper – are disconnected in Haunted, at least in terms of their alleged affect; after all, some of the short stories in the novel are certainly capable of eliciting strong affective reactions, but they are hardly able to recreate the experience that not only provided the spark of inspiration that summoned them into existence, but completely annihilated the self of the experiencer and created the personae of disgust that we encounter in the framing story.

What we are left with are two independent areas of disgust in Palahniuk's works: the immediate affective disgust, which we encounter in all three novels and which is caused by disgusting objects to which we as readers respond in an affective manner, and the discursive disgust8, the meta-level which we encounter most apparently in Diary and Haunted and which Palahniuk uses to ponder the capabilities and power of emotions such as fear and disgust, both as a means to elicit an affective state in the reader as well as to serve as source of inspiration for creating an aesthetic piece of art with the potential to depict even a 'lowly' emotion such as disgust in an aesthetically appreciable mode. In short, Palahniuk embraces disgust; he himself manages to transform it into an appreciable mode in his three novels (and arguably in the entirety of his literary works) and allows us a glimpse of the enormous transgressive capabilities of this emotional state that has been treated with universal disregard for far too long.


Glaister, Dan (2004): "I dare you", in The Guardian. 7.12.2013

Kelly, Daniel R. (2011): Yuck!: The Nature and Moral Significance of Disgust. Cambridge: MIT.

Kolnai, Aurel (2007): Ekel, Hochmut, Haß. Zur Phänomenologie feindlicher Gefühle. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag.

Korsmeyer, Carolyn (2008): "Fear and Disgust: the Sublime and the Sublate", in: Revue Internationale de philosophie, 246, 367-379.

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Levenson, Robert W. (1992): "Autonomic Nervous System Differences Among Emotions", in: Psychological Science, 3.1, 23-27.

Menninghaus, Winfried (1999): Ekel. Theorie und Geschichte einer starken Empfindung. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag.

Miller, William Ian (1997): The Anatomy of Disgust. Cambridge, London: Harvard University Press.

N.N. (2011): "The most revolting food", in: CNN Go Report. 7.12.2013.

Palahniuk, Chuck (2003): Diary. New York: Anchor Books.

Palahniuk, Chuck (2006): Haunted. London: Vintage.

Palahniuk, Chuck (2003): Lullaby. London: Vintage.

Phillips, Mary L., et al (1997): "A Specific Neural Substrate for Perceiving Facial Expressions of Disgust", in Nature, 389, 495-498.

Rozin, Paul, et al (2010): Michael Lewis (Ed.): Handbook of Emotions. 3rd ed. New York: Guilford Press, 757-776.

Wilson, Robert Rawdon (2002): Imagining Disgust. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press.


1 Consider, for example, the so-called "Century egg", a traditional Chinese dish that is generally perceived to be disgusting in western countries (cf. N.N. 2011) that would fall under the "physically disgusting objects" in Kolnai's classification.

2 By and large, this list is also echoed by Kelly (cf. Kelly 2011: 28-29).

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3 Of course, this attendant feeling intersects to an extent with the physiological component given that nausea plays into the sense of unease. Unfortunately, such overlap is unavoidable; yet fortunately, awareness of this overlap makes it a non-problem since it poses no further difficulties in construing a theory of affective disgust.

4 That is not to say that disgust is the only emotion linked to these states, but it certainly is a central one. Disease, madness and injury are all linked different fears of contamination: injury on the surface, disease on the inside, and madness on the innermost (and moral) level of the body. They can thus be aptly described as proper objects of disgust.

5 The term "illusion" is central here. Of course, we know that the events and characters of the novel are fictitious, and that Chuck Palahniuk is the author. The novel merely operates metaleptically in order to maintain an illusion that contributes to the immediacy and affect of the novel.

6 Note how Palahniuk attempts to create an overwhelming affect by describing the disgusting object not only in the expected manner of the olfactory and visual senses, but also in terms of auditive sensation ("the sound of skin coming apart"), which is a sense not readily attributable to the experience of disgust.

7 This follows the assumption that generally speaking, affective objects in works of fiction are utilized to elicit their corresponding affective response. Romance novels with their depiction of love and the inevitable drama might elicit an emotional response akin to sadness; contemporary horror films (especially of the 'torture porn' subgenre tend to depict excessive violence, gore and torture as a means to gross out their audience, to cause utmost disgust; etc.)

8 The decision to term what Palahniuk has constructed here as "discursive disgust" should already hint at the fact that this area requires cognitive effort and, different from the other area, is not immediately part of the affective reaction. Picturing one area as "affect-centered" and the other as "cognition-centered" may help differentiate between the two, however oversimplifying such a distinction may be.