Uses of Displeasure: Literary Value and Affective Disgust
By Liz JanssenJuly 18, 2015
Quoted from Goodreads.com reader responses to Samuel Delany’s Hogg:
“This is a book I can't give a star to. I need some sort of alternate system to rate it […] both the worst book I've ever read and one of the best […]”
“The most depraved, disgusting, brilliantly sickening perversion I have ever read. Although it is worth 5 stars for its brilliance, I cannot give it anything other than a ONE STAR. Yuck.”
“First of all I seriously DO NOT recommend this book […] nevertheless, it's one of the best books I've ever read.”
“Absolutely disgusting … rape, child molestation, shit, rape, more rape, shit and rape. I liked it; 3 stars.”
“This is the most fucked up book I've ever read. I can't even rate it. I have no idea what it would be. It's a 1 and a 5 at the same time.”
THESE COMMENTS DEMONSTRATE the difficulty of ascribing value to literature that is purposely unpleasant to read. They also demonstrate the necessary failure of any single evaluative framework — beauty, for instance, or truth — to account for a text’s “worth.” Samuel Delany’s novel Hogg (written in 1969 but unpublished until 1995) is an extreme text by any imaginable standard; it engages, in excruciating detail, troubling and taboo subjects including incest and pedophilia (forced and consensual), necrophilia, scatophilia, mutilation, and rape. Indeed, scenes of graphic sex and violence comprise the entire novel and are flatly narrated in the first person by an unnamed 11-year-old boy referred to, descriptively, as “cocksucker.” Hogg wants us to feel disgust: expressions of revulsion are found in nearly all of the 340 Goodreads reviews. And yet terms of literary value — whether the novel is “good” or “bad,” according to the site’s five-star rating system — are incredibly inconsistent, and some readers admit to being utterly paralyzed: several readers articulate some version of “I can’t even rate it.” For many readers, a text’s value lies in its ability to deliver those straightforwardly positive or pleasurable emotions which Hogg refuses to do. For others, the text’s prodigious ability to disgust is proof of its excellence. Hogg helps us, then, examine our divergent modes of evaluating and discussing literature, and the centrality of affect (positive and negative) for readers both inside and outside the academic realm.
The mainstream literary market produces few texts that force these considerations as powerfully as Hogg does. Many readers are not used to accounting for negative emotions (or “ugly feelings” in Sianne Ngai’s terms) like disgust in their positive evaluations of a text. Extreme texts like Hogg are so affectively challenging that readers’ ability to evaluate the text is suspended by their immediate physical response. They are simply disgusted — their affect is their interpretation. I use the term “affect” — instead of “feeling” or “emotion” — because it is a way to focus on embodiment (the way we are “affected”) rather than on moral judgments that many readers conflate with the way they “feel” about a text. “Literary value” means different things to different people, but to ask, “What is the value of this disgusting text?” requires that we also ask: “What is literary value — and for whom?” It can help us reconsider the supposed “enormous gap” (in John Guillory’s terms) between “professional” and “lay” reading practices. Hogg and other extremely disgusting texts force questions about what we read, why we read, and why or how we should read.
Hogg opens with an explicit scene of incest, witnessed by the child narrator, who then becomes a willing sexual partner to both siblings and their father. The novel progresses without marked breaks between scenes; the world of Hogg unfolds relentlessly as one in which sex and abjection are inextricably tied and omnipresent. Readers find themselves, still early in the novel, suddenly privy to new horror as a big, filthy man brutally rapes a woman in an alley. The rapist notices the narrator watching and, after kicking the mutilated woman until she passes out, introduces himself to the narrator in a friendly way:
They call me Hogg 'cause a hog lives dirty. I don't wash none. And when I get hungry, I eat my own snot […] I don't even take my dick out my pants to piss most times, unless it's in some cunt's face. Or all over a cocksucker like you.
Moments into their first meeting, the narrator willfully fellates Hogg and licks dog feces off of his foot. Hogg decides the boy is worth keeping alive and around, though normally he might have killed a witness to his “business.” That business is, as it turns out, the paid enactment of “revenge” by way of abuse, rape, and sometimes murder, on behalf of men who have been “wronged” by women. The novel continues as a series of scenes of rape and torture, in which the narrator participates more and more actively as the text (and his relationship as lover/mentee to Hogg) progresses. The world of Hogg is thus as ethically repugnant as Hogg himself: its characters, their actions, and the very conditions of the novelized environment all elicit disgust.
The narration is straightforwardly descriptive (though the narrator never describes himself), withholding any interjection of judgment, rationalization, or feeling except those that are purely sensory. These refusals are, in effect, refusals of readerly relief; the fact that access to the disgusting is extended by a seemingly affectless child narrator is all the more shocking for this absence of narrative judgment. Hogg’s victims may experience pain or horror, but while he and the narrator might be lustful, amused, annoyed, they are rendered as (at most) only briefly and mildly disturbed — never disgusted. In this way, the text both invites readers to question their own disgust and eventually conditions them to abandon the question — if not the affect itself — as somehow irrelevant.
During one of his “jobs,” in which Hogg and four other men rape and nearly kill a woman and her young daughter, the “employer” Jimmy appears. At first, Jimmy participates gleefully; however, as the scene becomes more and more gruesome, Hogg’s violence starts to exceed his capacity for rationalization:
She swayed, and her head sagged forward, and her shirt was swinging down from one shoulder, and there was blood in her hair and blood smeared all over her side […] Her face was wrinkled as a rubber mask somebody's just grabbed from behind: all bloody, it came up to look at us. Then it swiveled, and looked down at the girl on the floor.
Then it came up again […]
“Jesus …,” Jimmy whispered […] The rasp came on and, in the middle, something fell out her mouth and broke on the floor: a bridge of about five teeth. I could see the little metal wires. In the fight they must have cut up her mouth pretty bad, because they were so bloody it took me three seconds to figure out what it was.
“… Christ,” Jimmy finished, in a voice that made me look at him.
Readers are left to intuit Jimmy’s affective response through the narrator’s straightforward reportage of what he says and what the narrator does in response. Here, as in most of the novel, affects are rendered at the level of the bodily. What characters feel (or even think) is never narrated, perhaps because there is no “appropriate” affective response to such extreme brutality. Readers may presume that Jimmy is experiencing disgust at the abject violence, and at himself for having in fact authored the scene that horrifies him. His ethical disgust is thus not exactly legitimate, but for a fleeting moment, Jimmy seems a potentially less disgusting figure — at least compared to his fellow perpetrators. His self-disgust, however, is challenged and derationalized at the novel’s every turn — particularly by Hogg himself, who later in this scene describes his own “affect” thusly, while getting a blow job from the narrator:
“[E]very time I see a woman, any woman just about, it don't seem to matter: I start to think about her with a bruise under her eye, or a bloody nose, or cryin', or even lookin' just helpless and scared, an' my dick gets so hard it just about hurts. I mean, I 'd keep a cocksucker around, but I wouldn't go looking for it. But a bitch, I mean: it gets me so hot I think I'm gonna lose my fuckin' head!”
“Yeah,” I heard Jimmy say, like he understood that. “Yeah, I guess I can see that. Things are like that: some things make you hot, some things make you happy, some things make you mad. Like what that bitch and her boyfriend done to me when I was —”
I felt Hogg's leg tense. The truck jarred, stopping.
Hogg said: “Get up, cocksucker.”
I sat up.
Hogg pushed his wet meat back in his fly. “Time for you to get out,” he said to Jimmy; I guess Hogg really had no intention to listen to none of Jimmy's story.
Hogg forthrightly describes his physical reaction to the sight of a woman’s body marked by violence or abuse, which would presumably strike most readers as horrific; still, Jimmy’s attempt to narrate affects in more conventional terms strikes Hogg as so absurd that as Jimmy walks away from the truck, Hogg shoots him. (He then directs the narrator to fellate the dying man and, as the boy does so, shoots Jimmy in the face). In response to the astonishment of other characters, Hogg explains:
You gotta shoot a crazy motherfucker like that […] The fucker is up there with us, beatin' on the bitch, and fuckin' on the bitch, and just gettin' into the whole thing. Then he's gonna turn around and tell us he's got reasons for actin' like he's doin'? Now you do somethin' like that, man, 'cause you want to. 'Cause you get your fuckin' jollies that way. 'Cause that's the way you like it. But can you think of a goddamn reason for doin' something like that, the way we done them women? — of somethin' they could of possibly done to someone else to make that all right, like he's tryin' to tell us?
For Hogg, what they “done them women” is not “all right” — the sources of ethical disgust in the novel are existentially absurd and cannot be rationalized or theorized. To do so would be to deny participation in, and responsibility for, the disgusting that is inherent to an absurd and ethically irrational universe. Relativism doesn’t help, any more than Jimmy’s attempts to find terms that would render his actions (or ethics) less disgusting. The disgusting (mundane or extreme) is a physical fact of the world and must be contended with on its own quite immediate terms; it cannot be ignored, sequestered, or theorized from a safe distance. Hogg, then, is not only challenging readers to contend with their own impulses to deny or abstract their implication in the disgusting. He is also delivering a compelling metatextual case for Hogg’s own value as an aesthetic object.
The text grants Hogg the unique capacity among its characters to articulate the absurdity of a world comprised of ruthlessly oppressive human relationships:
You know what I'd do if I was a bitch? […] I'd get me a gun, go out on the street, and — bip! bip! bip! — I'd put a bullet in everything I even suspected had a pecker swingin' between its legs. Anything else a bitch is gonna do is just crazy. Course, bitches is crazy. But the way you know it is just 'cause they don't do the one sane thing they could: Go out and start shootin'.
Hogg is all too equipped to admit, and relish, his own participation in maintaining the given order of this novelized universe. Women are “crazy” because they either do not recognize or do not admit the brutal and horrifying sexism that determines their world — one in which, according to Hogg, “Men hate bitches, man. All men hate all bitches.” The only sensible responses to these conditions are, for Hogg, acceptance followed by participation (to “go out and start shootin'”). Disgust is produced, after all, by those aspects of the real (or the fictional) that we want to deny precisely because we lack comfortable or familiar frameworks for rationalizing or making sense of them — by that which is both affectively challenging and ideologically confounding. For some readers, as evidenced by the Goodreads responses, the very idea that such disgusting art or literature might have any value is inconceivable.
Hogg continuously provokes reflection on what exactly constitutes ethical or appropriate affective enjoyment (or indeed any responses beyond disgust itself) of such a text. What happens when readers feel, for instance, aroused while reading Hogg, or when they experience conflicting affective responses, to which several of the Goodreads reviews testify? Rita Felski, in Uses of Literature, points out that the “somatic register of response” has been exactly that which “receives short shrift in literary criticism,” and she proposes that literary critics adopt an “aesthetic of shock” when confronted with the profoundly unsettling or disgusting; such an aesthetic might provide the currently absent framework for understanding those instances of “warring impulses of desire and disgust” that readers often experience. Felski suggests that in response to the disgusting, desire itself becomes deeply confounding and uncomfortable. The body’s responses are nuanced and manifold, and critics require more nuanced and legible terms for understanding them, especially those that are unsettling or unrecognizable.
In his essay “The Ethical Practice of Modernity: The Example of Reading,” John Guillory outlines what he perceives as an ever widening disconnect between “lay” and “professional” readers, their motivations, and their practices. A crucial distinction is each group’s relation to pleasure:
[L]ay reading tends to reduce the pleasure of reading to the immediacy of consumption, with no other end than momentary distraction. Professional reading by contrast tends to oppose its ascetic practice to pleasure, or to justify pleasure only as a means to a political end.
Guillory argues that finding middle ground between these two poles is necessary and possible, but only through an “ethical” practice of reading that involves the recognition of pleasure as not necessarily requiring a “political end” or as reducible to pure “entertainment.” Guillory argues, rightly or wrongly, that the middle ground doesn’t currently exist: “[I]t has become very hard to conceive of intermediate practices of reading, between the poles of entertainment on the one side, and vigilant professionalism on the other.”
Pleasure, for Guillory, is the “immediacy of consumption,” and therefore the opposite of ideology critique. But a text like Hogg demonstrates that extremely challenging, unpleasurable affect is often most immediate to readers. Disgust is far more difficult than pleasure to disavow or ignore, as it is so keenly and immediately felt in the body; readers are, in Felski’s terms, “floored by the sheer physicality” of the response. In his influential theorization of “contempt-disgust,” Silvan Tomkins describes that affect as “auxiliary to the hunger, thirst, and oxygen drives. Its function is clear.” That function is to reject the object of disgust, totally and with the urgency of a survival mechanism. Although obviously embodied, disgust directs attention “to the source, the object, rather than to the self […] to maximize the distance between the face and the object which disgusts the self. It is a literal pulling away from the object.” In the case of a disgusting literary object like Hogg, it is precisely the “attention to” while “pulling away” from the object that produces the “intense consciousness” of the object.
In her book Ugly Feelings, Sianne Ngai argues that disgust “strengthens and polices” the boundary between subject and object; disgust is uniquely “urgent and specific,” a “definite response” that doesn’t allow for the same ambiguities as other negative affects. Diverging from Tomkins, Ngai disengages disgust from contempt:
For if benevolence or pity can be a way of managing aversion to an object perceived as socially inferior (in order to maintain what Miller calls its “disattendability”), disgust can be a prophylactic against the contempt that marks the negative limit of that disattendability […]
In other words, disgust forecloses the possibility of condescension and contempt. Disgust, in its particular urgency and specificity, allows us to imagine what Guillory calls an “intermediate practice of reading” as one that values embodied displeasure on its own unambiguous terms.
In their introduction to a 2009 special issue of the journal Representations entitled “The Way We Read Now,” Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus advocate “surface reading” as an antidote to “symptomatic reading.” The latter presumes that what is valuable or meaningful in texts is “repressed, deep, and in need of detection and disclosure by an interpreter,” and thus, among other things, maintains the literary critic’s privileged status. For Best and Marcus, “a surface is what insists on being looked at rather than what we must train ourselves to see through,” and disgusting texts might level this insistence most effectively, as they produce such “intense consciousness of the object.” A significant aspect of surface reading’s value is, for Best and Marcus, its “[refusal] to celebrate or condemn” the object of study, and the very challenge that such a refusal presents to critics: “[A] true openness to all the potentials made available by texts is […] the best way to say anything accurate and true about them.” Rather than seeing the disgusting text as a symptom of ideology, an alternative practice like surface reading allows critics and texts to describe what is objectively “true” about the world, including that which is disgusting and disturbing.
While developing her “aesthetic of shock,” Felski describes the flat, straightforward narration of Gayl Jones’s Eva’s Man as a “blank, unyielding surface that repels interpretation and cancels out an entire repertoire of hermeneutical possibilities, that calls on us to judge and yet mercilessly undercuts all our criteria of judgment.” The novel thus “stages an attack, not just on our ethical sensibilities, but on the procedures by which we impute meaning to works of fiction.” Like Eva’s Man, which depicts the psychiatric institutionalization of a woman who murders her lover and then bites off his penis, Delany’s Hogg levels a full-blown, nauseating assault to the legitimating frameworks of both literary convention and social order. In describing the culmination of a particularly lurid gang rape early in the novel, the narrator comments that “[i]t looked like they were balling a limp corpse that for some reason kept gagging every so often.” The sheer superficiality of this image — its objectivity and concreteness — arrests theorization. It requires no interpretation to unveil how repulsive it is or to convey its own critique of the most monstrous aspects of the “real.” That critique is felt through readerly disgust. As opposed to imputing meaning or value through familiar methodologies of “disclosure,” all readers are forced to engage the very literal terms of the disgusting.
Best and Marcus see “no need to translate the text into a theoretical or historical metalanguage in order to make the text meaningful. The purpose of criticism is thus a relatively modest one: to indicate what the text says about itself.” What Hogg says about itself is perfectly plain (“They call me Hogg ‘cause a hog lives dirty”). Felski argues that literature “becomes truly disquieting not when it is shown to further social progress, but when it utterly fails to do so, when it slips through our frameworks of legitimation and resists our most heartfelt values.” How, then, are readers to make “use” of that failure — and, moreover, of that disquiet? Ngai suggests that “[i]n its intense and unambivalent negativity, disgust thus seems to […] prepar[e] us for more instrumental or politically efficacious emotions.” Disgust is inherently challenging in its uncomfortable embodiment, in its resistance to being abstracted, and in its immediacy. Whether and how readers value a disgusting text may be a matter of choice, but the disgust comes first: only then evaluation, or, as in our opening quotes, the flummoxing of evaluation. And therein lies its fundamental worth: disgust confounds terms of literary value and democratizes them at the same time. Embodied unpleasantness, when produced by a literary text such as Delany’s Hogg, might indeed pave new ways to consider the foundations for shared readerly experience.
List of Works Cited
Best, Stephen and Sharon Marcus. “Surface Reading: An Introduction.” Representations 108 (2009): 1-21. Print.
Delany, Samuel. Hogg. Boulder: Black Ice Books, 1995. Print.
Felski, Rita. Uses of Literature. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008. Print.
Guillory, John. “The Ethical Practice of Modernity.” The Turn to Ethics. Ed. Marjorie Garber, Beatrice Hanssen, and Rebecca L. Walkowitz. New York: Routledge, 29-45. Print.
Ngai, Sianne. Ugly Feelings. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005. Print.
Scott, Darieck. Extravagant Abjection: Blackness, Power, and Sexuality in the African American Literary Imagination. New York: NYU Press, 2010. Print.
Tomkins, Silvan. “Shame-Humiliation and Contempt-Disgust.” Shame and Its Sisters: A Silvan Tomkins Reader. Ed. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Adam Frank. Durham: Duke University Press, 1995. Print.
Liz Janssen is currently pursuing her PhD in English literature at the University of Washington, where she studies U.S. print cultures and reading publics.
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