The Vomiting Mill: Scenes of Sociological Repulsion from Wordsworth to Durkheim
Among the close and overcrowded hauntsOf cities, where the human heart is sick,And the eye feeds it not, and cannot feed.—William Wordsworth, The Prelude (1850)
“Feeling is an object for scientific study,” Émile Durkheim declares in The Rules of Sociological Method (1895), “not the criterion of scientific truth” (39–40). Emotional bias and sentimental attachment needed to be “rooted out” from the sociologist’s method, he insists, in order for the discipline to establish itself as a legitimate branch of scientific knowledge distinct, crucially, from the socially critical ambitions of realist or naturalist literature in the same period. However, social phenomena posed a special problem to this process of excluding emotions, precisely because they were so deeply, constitutively value laden. “We enthuse over our political and religious beliefs and moral practices very differently from the way we do over the objects of the physical world,” Durkheim goes on. Indeed, the uncritical, reflexive emotional bonds formed with the social are so potent, he writes, “they will not tolerate scientific examination. The mere fact of subjecting them . . . to cold, dry analysis is repugnant to certain minds.” Feeling therefore not only clouds judgment, in Durkheim’s view, but defends the social from critical investigation in the first place, deflecting inquiry. This twofold methodological problem had dogged disciplinary sociology from the start. Herbert Spencer, for instance, devoted an entire chapter of his 1873 methodological treatise The Study of Sociology to “Subjective Difficulties—Emotional”: “How, then,” he asks, “with such perverting emotions, is it possible to take a rational view of sociological facts?” (144).
Durkheim asserted that it was imperative for the sociologist to overcome the protective feelings of repugnance shielding social phenomena from scientific analysis. The failure to disentangle fact from feeling, to root out emotion, he warns, would mean “the negation of all science" (40). Compared to some of his contemporaries, this wholesale repudiation of emotion represented a polemical position. Max Weber, by contrast, remained unconvinced throughout his career that the objects of the social world could be entirely isolated from the evaluative presuppositions and subjective attachments which constituted them to begin with. Nevertheless, Durkheim’s strong, unambivalent stance captures something of the fin-de-siècle mood of residual Enlightenment enthusiasm over the possibility of producing a modern scientific knowledge of the social domain freed from superstition and emotional prejudice. This enthusiasm was shared across all the emerging social scientific disciplines, each of which took a pronounced interest in bringing a methodological objectivity modeled on the natural sciences to bear on the study of the affective life of the subject. The neoclassical economists of the late nineteenth century epitomized this tendency, at once intensifying their focus on the pleasures and desires of the utilitarian subject while deriving their increasingly impersonal methodological premises from mathematics and the physical sciences. Alfred Marshall, for example, understood the ebb and surge of human appetites to be the principal engine of social and economic life—but he modeled his conception of appetite on the law-bound, measurable oscillation of a pendulum.
Affective life was at the heart of the social, but in order to study it, feeling needed to be overcome.
In the following pages, I offer a condensed genealogical account of how this particular social scientific coordination of feeling and unfeeling came to take on its commonsense character, such that, having emotions would come to seem like an impediment to understanding emotions, rather than a prerequisite or an aid. I focus in particular on the prominent role that the negative emotion of disgust played in this historical process. I examine two scenes of proto-sociological repulsion from the nineteenth century: Friedrich Engels’s disgust at Londoners’ alienation, and William Wordsworth’s description, in the seventh book of The Prelude, of London’s Bartholomew Fair “as if the whole were one vast mill, / Are vomiting, receiving on all sides, / Men, women, three-years’ children, babes in arms” (7.692–4). By comparing Engels and Wordsworth, and the work of later social analysts, like Georg Simmel, I build on and extend canonical readings by Raymond Williams and Steven Marcus, among others. These works sought to excavate and analyze a tradition of city writing that cut across genres and disciplines and reflected a new awareness of the material conditions of social life under nineteenth-century capitalism. My aim is different. While Williams was interested in analyzing the changes in what he influentially called the structure of feeling of modern urban life, I focus more specifically on the role of feeling within the development of the increasingly scientific techniques of social analysis in the period. In so doing, I hope to unsettle the presumed continuity that Williams and others have ascribed to what feeling meant in the nineteenth century. I also hope to shed light on the contradictory parts it played in the description of modern social life.
This difference in focus has important methodological consequences for the way that I view the relationship between the literary and non-literary texts I read in this article. Although I do regard Wordsworth’s “Residence in London” as an important starting point for a genre-crossing tradition of modern city writing, my analysis also takes into account the role of feeling and affect in the entanglement of literary and sociological writing over the course of the nineteenth century, as well as in their ultimate disaggregation as separate disciplines. When I turn at length to Wordsworth’s description of London as a vomiting mill, or to his diagnosis of the metropolis as the place “where the human heart is sick,” I do so partly because they anticipate later analyses of urban alienation as an affective sickness, but more crucially because they reflect an early nineteenth-century moment when such analysis had yet to be subjected to the methodological interdiction of feeling that Durkheim so forcefully articulated at the close of the century. Thus, while each of the “scenes” of modern sociological repulsion I examine—Wordsworth, followed by Engels, then back to 1900—dramatizes an encounter with the malady of feeling first diagnosed by Wordsworth, what changes is the underlying normative sense of what feelings are, what they are meant to do, and what constitutes their deformation.
Disgust played a special part in the slow emergence of nineteenth-century sociology. One can already begin to trace the outline of disgust’s sociological function in Durkheim’s ascription of a special function to repugnance. Repugnance here exemplifies the benighted irrationality of emotion in general, a distortion of rational judgment that demands the practiced restraint of the social scientist in order to be overcome. Yet even this rather boilerplate dualism turns out not to be so simple, since Durkheim also implies that repugnance is a medium of restraint in its own right. It is an emotion, he suggests, whose articulation fends off the claims of reason. Hence feeling was to be resisted, but some feelings also exerted their own forms of resistance. How then could one distinguish between the disciplinary restraint of the sociologist and the affective resistances that were to be overcome?
This complexity in the sociological conception of disgust is best approached through a related problematization of feeling that arose specifically out of the study of urban life over the course of the nineteenth century, and which came to inform social theory in the opening decades of the twentieth. Approached from the perspective of urban sociology, the salient problem of modern social relations was not human emotionality per se, but alienation. That is, it was not the overabundance or primacy of feeling that was central to social theoretical analysis, but rather its deficiency, absence, overregulation, or deformation through life in the modern capitalist city. Indeed, the characterization of urban sociality as indifferent or emotionless was typical of turn of the century social thought. In Simmel’s influential formulation, for example, life in the capitalist metropolis is characterized by its emotional “reserve”: the “blasé attitude” whose “essence is an indifference towards the distinctions between things,” which stemmed from the preeminence of economic exchange (Metropolis 331). Weber, too, writes of the “impersonality” of city life (City 77), while Durkheim develops his conception of anomie—a "hatred or disgust for the prevailing order”—out of what he saw as the specific mismatch between the normative strictures of industrial society and the “bottomless abyss” of the human “capacity for feeling” (Suicide 337, 208).
The widespread diagnosis of alienation as a state devoid of feeling or of deformed feeling was bound up with an equally prevalent set of ideas about the centrality of disgust to human sociality. This focus on disgust as a social affect was shared by social theorists working with a variety of different conceptual idioms. Most notably, in Simmel’s conception of the blasé attitude, indifference and the absence of feeling shade into what he describes as “a slight aversion, a mutual strangeness and repulsion [Abstoßung]” (Metropolis 331). For Simmel, repulsion was a primary negative force operating beneath the veneer of interpersonal neutrality. Without such “feelings of mutual strangeness and repulsion,” he writes in his long essay of 1908, “Conflict,” “we could not imagine what form modern urban life…might possibly take” (Conflict 21).
Norbert Elias, too, memorably describes the slow formation of what he called the civilized habitus, over the course of the medieval and early modern periods, as the outcome of “advances in the threshold of repugnance” (102). Elias argues that the emotional restraint that characterized modern social life was, counterintuitively, produced by heightened disgust. In a more bombastic idiom, Georges Bataille would proclaim, in the first of a pair of 1938 lectures on “Attraction and Repulsion,” that “everything leads us to believe that early human beings were brought together by disgust and common terror.” “The social nucleus is, in fact…untouchable and unspeakable,” Bataille declared, “[it is] the object of a fundamental repulsion” (106). Cool indifference and alienation might be the affective states that best diagnosed modern life, but stronger feelings of disgust, antipathy and repulsion were never too far off. As Simmel puts it, repulsion is “the inner side” of indifference.
The identification of repulsion with alienation posed an implicit conceptual problem for early social theory, one that I am arguing ought to be understood as having arisen out of particular historical circumstances and transformations. On the one hand, the conflation of the two affective states and their installation at the heart of modern social life would seem to exemplify Durkheim’s call for sociology to treat feeling as an object of scientific analysis rather than a criterion of scientific judgment. The wager was that affective life could be studied objectively, impersonally, without feeling creeping into the sociological method. Yet on the other hand, the counterintuitive discovery that strong, binding feelings of disgust lurk beneath the veneer of affective neutrality introduced a complication. For now, it began to seem as though negative affects such as antipathy and repugnance might in some sense be preconditions for the practiced restraint and distanced impassivity of the modern social scientific habitus itself. Were the social scientific enthusiasm for objectivity, and the call to root out feeling from method, modern disciplinary innovations that would illuminate heretofore concealed dimensions of social life? Or were they themselves part of the processes of emotional discipline and deformation that seemed increasingly evident to those social theorists who followed the entangled threads of feeling, unfeeling, and unwanted feeling through the modern city?
Addressing these questions requires pushing back into the nineteenth century and examining the role of disgust not only in the proto-sociology of the 1840s and 1850s, but also in the literary archive of the period. As has often been observed, the emergence of disciplinary sociology—and urban sociology in particular—over the second half of the nineteenth century depended not only on the appropriation of natural scientific and statistical methods for the study of social life, but on sharpening the distinction between the literary and the sociological to the point where they would eventually appear as self-evidently separate and even mutually exclusive domains.
However, the process of their differentiation was gradual and uneven. Throughout the century, one is as likely to encounter proto-sociological texts that draw on literary conventions—Henry Mayhew’s reliance on characterization and anecdote, for instance, or Harriet Martineau’s direct appeals to readerly sympathy—as one is to encounter novelists articulating their social scientific ambitions. Indeed, prominent late nineteenth-century authors sought to frame the literary text itself as a scientific laboratory in which the passions and pathologies of social life could be examined and controlled, as with Émile Zola’s notion of the “experimental novel” and Thomas Hardy’s elaboration of a “science of fiction.” Even though the emergence of disciplinary sociology depended on progressively sharpening its distinction from literature, literary realism in this very period shared a horizon of sociological ambition.
Questions of feeling and, in particular, of unwanted feeling, were central to this process of disciplinary entanglement and disaggregation. At the close of the century, such questions revolved largely around the status of disgust as an emotion to be surmounted or set aside. Indeed, one does not need to dig deep to find literary preemptions of Durkheim’s call to overcome the repugnance that protects social reality from analysis. An 1884 preface to the English translation of Zola’s L’Assommoir, to name one example, argues that in order to read Zola properly “you must conquer the first feeling of repugnance; then, whatever may be the final judgment pronounced upon the writer, you are glad to have read his works, and you arrive at the conclusion that you ought to have read them…even if it bring with it an odour not altogether agreeable” (De Amicis 1). By the same token, criticism of the realist or naturalist novel often took issue precisely with its failure to transcend its merely sociological ambitions, which were framed as a kind of quasi-scientific prurience. Historically speaking, these allegations of realism’s insensitivity to the grotesque, and of its morbid obsession with the deformed, have appealed to a broad ideological spectrum of literary critics. It is in this vein, for instance, that John Ruskin accuses realists, including Zola and Dickens, of reducing literary art simply to a “science of fiction, concerned mainly with the description of…[the] forms of disease” of industrial society and of being motivated only by the “curiosity of science in morbid phenomena” (269). In a very different idiom, György Lukács repeats the claim that Zola’s “descriptive method” had degraded the novel form by “attempt[ing] to make literature scientific, to transform it…into sociology,” thus “intensifying the decay” of modern culture under bourgeois capitalism (127).
Before delving deeper into the nineteenth century and turning to Wordsworth’s “Residence in London,” I want to flesh out more fully the emotional grammar of the process of disciplinary knowledge formation I am describing. At the turn of the century, we have seen, novelists and sociologists alike shared a sense that the production of the form of objectivity specific to analysis of the social domain required the management of the observer’s disgust. From this perspective, the sociological impulse appears to depend on an idea of emotion as a reflexive impulse that can be restrained or “conquered”; the diagnosis of modern society’s complex problems is only possible if one’s disgust is expelled, kept in, or otherwise overcome.
By contrast, from the perspective of critics who saw the rise of the sociological ambition as part of a more general cultural malady, the absence of feeling was itself the pathology to be diagnosed. Yet it is important to note that this position also staked its claim in a conception about the overcoming of disgust; the disagreement concerned whether or not overcoming feeling was the poison or the cure. In both cases, then, what is needed in order to understand the emergence of the sociological impulse is a clearer sense of what it meant to conquer one’s disgust or overcome it.
Turning to an earlier text such as Wordsworth’s “Residence in London” can help to disentangle these interweaving questions of feeling and unfeeling in the sociological method. Indeed, the seventh book of The Prelude has often struck readers as a kind of proximal origin for a tradition of urban sociological writing that includes figures like Engels and Simmel, though it of course shares neither the disciplinary nor the scientific ambitions of these later accounts of modern city life. Raymond Williams, for one, saw “Residence in London” as “one of the major early records of new ways of seeing the city,” describing Wordsworth’s account of urban alienation as “the first expression of what has since become a dominant experience of the city” (150). In a whole range of later poets, novelists and sociologists, Williams identifies and describes a “way of seeing London that has a clear continuity from Wordsworth,” which stems from “the sense of paradox: that in the great city itself, the very place and agency—or so it would seem—of collective consciousness, it is an absence of common feeling, an excessive subjectivity, that seems to be characteristic” (215). Less attuned to the historical development of this structure of feeling, Steven Marcus likewise finds “similar if not identical tendencies” in Engels’s, Simmel’s, and Wordsworth’s accounts of urban life (148). This critical consensus continues to characterize more recent criticism, as well. For instance, James Chandler and Kevin Gilmartin have persuasively detailed the affinities between “Residence in London” and later social theoretical accounts of the modern metropolis, most notably Walter Benjamin’s writings on Baudelaire’s Paris and Simmel’s on Berlin; while Eugene Stelzig argues that “the negative presentation of the city of London in Book 7 of The Prelude is part of a larger and well-known literary typecasting, Romantic and Modern, that scripts the city as a site of extreme alienation and even a kind of necropolis” (184).
More specifically, readers of The Prelude have long noted the precision with which Wordsworth details the aspects of the experience of alienation that would come to seem characteristic in the century after his writing. Foremost among these are the sense that one is surrounded by and yet cut off from others—that Londoners live “even next-door neighbours (as we say) yet still / Strangers, and not knowing each other’s names” (1805, 7.119–20); and the sense that all sociality has been reduced to economic exchange—and that consumption and production have been fundamentally confused “amid that concourse of mankind / Where Pleasure whirls about incessantly, / And life and labour seem but one” (1850, 7.69–81). As in later accounts of alienation, Wordsworth also describes the emotional deformation and inauthenticity of city life, “where the human heart is sick” and one lives “among the wretched and the falsely gay” (1805, 13.202, 7.396). The general movement is outward, from the recognition of the city as a space of overwhelming sensory confusion—“the quick dance / Of colours, lights, and forms; the Babel din; The endless stream of men, and moving things”—to the analysis of that sensory experience as part of a broader social phenomenon that transcends mere loneliness and perceptual overstimulation (1805, 7.162–4). This complex account of urban alienation finds its figure most famously in the poet’s confrontation with a blind beggar, whose explanatory placard seems to Wordsworth “a type / Or emblem of the utmost that we know / Both of ourselves and of the universe,” and whose disfiguration and isolation have long been taken by critics to represent Wordsworth’s most focused mediation on the social as well as the existential conditions of an incipient modernity.
The language of disgust supplies Wordsworth with a negative moral-sensory rhetoric that allows him to articulate the unwantedness of his experiences of the city. For instance, in the passage mentioned earlier, the poet describes the funhouse mayhem of London’s Bartholomew Fair “as if the whole were one vast mill, / …vomiting, receiving on all sides, / Men, women, three-years’ children, babes in arms” (7.692–4). This figure of the city as a churning mill consuming and then spewing forth a stream of people is in keeping with Wordsworth’s numerous other epithets for London’s fallen world, most notably “parliament of monsters” (1805, 7.691) and, in the 1850 revision, “huge fermenting mass of human-kind” (1850, 7.621) and “monstrous ant-hill on the plain / Of a too busy world” (1850, 7.149–50). These grotesque epithets register the poet’s sensory revulsion as well as his moral disapprobation towards the crowded city and the undifferentiated “swarm of its inhabitants” (7.698). In the view of the poem, the metropolis is overeating and vomiting; it is yeasted, at once outgrowing itself and rotting; it is a teeming swarm of bugs. The negative affective charge of these epithets extends to the whole narrative of “Residence in London” : Wordsworth gives readers a vivid image of London, but it is an image filtered through a condemnatory rhetoric of revulsion and sensory outrage; we see the city, but as an unwanted sight.
It is possible to see in Wordsworth’s rhetoric of disgust a crystallization of precisely the kind of emotional prejudice that sociologists later in the century would describe as an impediment to the accurate knowledge of social life. The normative quality of the emotion influences the description of social perception to such an extent that it becomes difficult to separate the one from the other in the text. At the same time, the grotesque characterization of the city comes to seem, from this angle, like something projected onto the city, rather than something revealed by the poet’s insight. And indeed, even in his own day—and even to those who knew him—Wordsworth’s overwhelming antipathy for the city could seem inordinate and out of place. Charles Lamb, for instance, observes that “the very deformities of London, which give distaste to others, do not displease me. The endless succession of shops…excite in me no puritanical aversion. I gladly behold every appetite supplied with its proper food. The obliging customer, and the obliged tradesman…do not affect me with disgust…I love the very smoke of London.”
Published in the Morning Post in 1802 but adapted from a letter he had written to Wordsworth the year before, Lamb’s column anticipates “Residence in London” almost point by point. The column takes aim at precisely the kind of strong aversive reaction to London that Wordsworth’s poem would reenact in 1805, and it does so principally by attributing disgust to the unaccustomed spectator or outsider, for whom the mere sight of excessive consumption is repulsive. Disgust, distaste and aversion, Lamb suggests, cloud one’s perception of city life, deforming the way that social relations appear. More significantly, one’s disgust offers up powerful judgments, rooted in habituation, that nonetheless masquerade as neutral perceptions. “From habit I perceive nothing but urbanity,” he writes, “where other men, more refined, discover meanness.”
I want to pause here to take stock of our discussion so far. In this section, I have outlined three components of what we might call the structure of unwanted feeling in Wordsworth’s poem of London. First, there is what has generally been understood by literary critics as Wordsworth’s anticipation of later influential accounts of urban alienation. Second, there is Wordsworth’s rhetorical presentation of his account of London through a condemnatory language of disgust, which draws on the conventions of the grotesque. And finally, there is Lamb’s allegation that disgust might be an unreliable guide to the city, insofar as it projects characterizations onto the social that are based solely on the habituated emotional reactions, or habitus, of the spectator. In what remains of this section, I want to contrast this structure of feeling with the genealogical problem I outlined at the opening of this essay. To recall, there were two contrary sides to that problem. The first was that feeling came to seem, by the close of the nineteenth century, like something that needed to be rooted out from the sociological method, whereas the second was that the strong, excessive feeling of disgust had come over the course of the same historical period to be identified with the deformation or absence of feeling constitutive of modern alienation.
Contrasting the structure of feeling with the genealogical problem can help to illuminate several historical shifts and transformations that have otherwise remained indistinct in the critical consensus concerning the influence of “Residence in London” on later city writing. For if Wordsworth’s account of alienation is understood to have anticipated and even structured later accounts, then what are we to make of the allegedly distorting quality of his disgust? Conversely, the fact of Wordsworth’s disgust towards the fallen world of London can hardly account for the later identification of repulsion with alienation. Instead, the rhetorical function of disgust in “Residence of London” would seem to be Wordsworth’s insistence on maintaining a distance from what he disapprovingly sees. Whereas a century later Simmel would yoke together “feelings of strangeness and mutual repulsion,” in Wordsworth there is hardly even a minimal identification of his own feelings of moral and sensory disapproval with the sickness of the human heart those feelings serve to identify and diagnose. Reading Wordsworth’s poem in the context of later sociological accounts of city life is useful, then, not so much because it anticipates the latter as because it shows us how much would have to change over the course of the nineteenth century, even to the point of inversion, in order to arrive at the conceptually conflicted state of affairs out of which modern social theory emerged. On the one hand, the opposition between two seemingly opposed affective states would have to collapse, while on the other hand, the dependence of an entire habitus or observational mood on the evidence of strong and unwanted feelings would have to be overcome or disavowed.
Much of what I am describing will come into sharp focus only by staging different scenes of sociological repulsion diachronically and analyzing its diverse rhetorical functions throughout the long nineteenth century. As we will see in the next section on Engels, my emphasis falls on change over time, rather than anticipation and continuity, though it is important to stress the continuities as well. Before moving on, however, I want to spend a bit more time with Wordsworth’s figure of London as a “vast mill” devouring and then vomiting out its inhabitants, and to suggest that this ambiguous figure does in fact illuminate something about the eventual conflation of repulsion with estrangement within sociological discourse. To recall, Wordsworth’s image is fundamentally one of confusion. After enumerating all of Bartholomew Fair’s “freaks of nature… / All jumbled up together to make up / This parliament of monsters,” the figure of the mill “vomiting, receiving, on all sides” suggests an inability to distinguish between comers and goers to the freak show, between lurid spectacle and grotesque spectator (1805, 7.688–91). This “blank confusion,” Wordsworth goes on, exemplifies “what the mighty city is itself”: a place in which distinctions between consumption, production, and excretion have been effaced, just as earlier in the poem a panorama painter is described as “with his greedy pencil taking in / A whole horizon on all sides,” as though the very implements of creativity and production were themselves the means of consumption.
In the vomiting mill, we are led to believe, making devolves into making waste, eating into excreting, using into destroying, and pleasure into repulsion—it is a place where opposing processes have become identical, and even the seemingly unbridgeable gulf between the organic (vomiting) and the industrial (mill) no longer seems so absolute.
Another principal confusion embedded in Wordsworth’s figure is between the expression and the object of disgust, or between disgust and the disgusting. Indeed, it is one of the singular features of the emotion of disgust that vomiting—its paradigmatic form of expression—is often deemed in its own right to be an object of disgust. This is in part because of the emotion’s association with the lowly parts of the body, with the belly and its wastes, which perhaps stems from the primary confusion of boundaries and of organic functions that is inherent to the physiological experience of the emotion; few other emotions, after all, can throw the basic directionality of the digestive system fully into reverse.
In this vein, Denise Gigante observes of the figure of the vomiting mill that “Wordsworth seems to have learned . . . that a powerful way to demonize someone is to portray him or her not in the act of logocentric expression but in a parodic version of unsignifying emission” (97). Yet beyond this denigrative function, I believe we can see in Wordsworth’s figure the rudimentary elements of the sociological association of repulsion with alienation, of excess feeling with pathological unfeeling. The confusion here requires a more complex understanding of the projection of disgust than that which Lamb described. Now it is not simply that the poet’s unwanted feelings color his way of seeing social phenomena, but that this reflux of unwanted emotion itself is poured out into “the vast receptacle” of London, coming to serve as a derogatory emblem of the city conceived as a whole. And even this does not quite fully capture the slippery, recursive character of this dynamic, in which what is projected is in its own right an image of projection or misplaced expulsion, as the metropolis extrudes itself.
In this early nineteenth-century image, then, we see an association just barely forged between disgust and alienation, as well as a repudiation of feeling that is also in some manner an excess feeling.
We can understand these shifts in the relationship between feeling and unfeeling over the course of the whole nineteenth century more precisely if we now turn to the analysis of city life at midcentury. Indeed, the five decades between Wordsworth’s first stabs at The Prelude and its publication in 1850 saw major upheavals in the writing and practice of social observation and analysis. In the first place, the bug-eyed sensory outrage of the figure in the city, which had been a source of innovation in Wordsworth’s poem, had by midcentury become a generalized feature of social investigation literature. Even in the most systematic and theoretically sophisticated proto-sociological texts of the mid-nineteenth century, disgust now appeared as the characteristic affective response of the bourgeois social investigator to unwanted social realities of the city. Moreover, what had been a relatively undefined aesthetic field of moral and sensory revulsion in Wordsworth now appeared unequivocally under the aegis of disgust. From Edwin Chadwick’s sanitary report to Friedrich Engels’s survey of Britain’s industrial towns, the explicit appeal to disgust at midcentury had developed into a dependable rhetorical technique. Most significantly, the appeal to disgust carried with it an implicit yet powerful expectation that collectively shared sense experience could serve as a basis for social agreement. In public discourse across a variety of genres and media, the appeal to disgust served to galvanize a public around a social or even civilizational wrong. In this regard the revolted spectator resembled what Lauren Berlant describes as “the subject of true feeling”: a wounded subject whose affective experiences lay claim to a “hard-wired truth, a core of common sense [that places it] beyond ideology, beyond mediation, beyond contestation” (True Feeling 47).
In contrast, midcentury also saw decisive developments in the social sciences that tugged the still-coalescing sociological method away from its rhetorical dependency on the “true feeling” of disgust, and indeed away from the articulation of feeling in general. The most salient among these changes were advances in statistical analysis by Adolphe Quetelet in France, and Robert Jones, Charles Babbage, and T.R. Malthus and others in the Statistical Society of London; this burgeoning field was itself developing out of an increasing awareness that the subjectivity of individual perspectives rendered them incapable of accounting for changes in the social whole.
This sense of the partiality of the individual perspective also underwrote the various critiques of political economy that emerged in the 1840s, most notably in Marx’s and Engels’s writings. Marxist social theorists often note a decades-long shift in Marx and Engel’s thought away from their early humanistic focus on the worker’s alienation and deformed subjectivity in the 1840s towards the objective analysis of his or her exploitation and the extraction of surplus value in Capital (1867). However, even in Marx’s early writings on alienation, one sees for the first time the analysis of feeling [fühlen] as a mutable social phenomenon subject to historical variation as well as change under political and economic pressure. This transformation of emotion and subjectivity into an object of analysis was, to recall Durkheim’s observation, representative of the overall development of the social sciences throughout the nineteenth century.
Engels’s 1845 social survey of Britain’s industrial towns epitomizes this double movement in sociology, at once towards and away from the appeal to feeling as an epistemological basis for knowledge of the social. “The very turmoil of the streets has something repulsive [etwas Widerliches],” he writes in The Condition of the Working Class in England, “something against which human nature rebels” (36–7). What follows this articulation of disgust is one of the century’s most influential descriptions of urban alienation, culminating in Engels’s indictment of “the social war, the war of each against all,” and of capital, “the weapon with which this social warfare is carried on”:‘The very turmoil of the streets has something repulsive, something against which human nature rebels. The hundreds of thousands of all classes and ranks crowding past each other, are they not all human beings with the same qualities and powers, and with the same interest in being happy? And have they not, in the end, to seek happiness in the same way, by the same means? And still they crowd by one another as though they had nothing in common, nothing to do with one another, and their only agreement is the tacit one, that each keep to his own side of the pavement . . . while it occurs to no man to honour another with so much as a glance. The brutal indifference, the unfeeling isolation of each in his private interest becomes the more repellent and offensive, the more these individuals are crowded together, within a limited space. And, however much one may be aware that this isolation of the individual, this narrow self-seeking is this fundamental principle of our society everywhere, it is nowhere so shamelessly barefaced, so self-conscious as just here in the crowding of the great city. The dissolution of man into monads, of which each one has a separate principle and a separate purpose, the world of atoms, is here carried out to its utmost extreme.’ Much has been written about the vision of London and of capitalism that Engels offers in this passage, but I wish specifically to characterize the disgust that Engels articulates towards the alienation of the crowded streets of the city. Disgust, according to Engels, is the rebellion of human nature against the inhumanity of this historical state of “crude solitariness” that masks the violence of social warfare. The emotion rejects the inhuman social organization under capitalist political economy, the “discord of identical interests” that permits people to “regard each other only as useful objects,” by opposing it to a collective morality grounded in a shared human nature. What stands out foremost in this passage is the implicit expectation of disgust’s unique persuasiveness as a mode of response. Held up as the token of an underlying “human nature” in revolt against industrial capitalism, the emotion lays claim to a quasi-instinctual authenticity and force. Who could argue, Engels seems to ask, with the commonsense of disgust? The invocation of repulsion is in this sense meant to place Engels’s analysis beyond contestation in precisely the way Berlant attributes to the appeal to “true feeling.” Moreover, Engels means for his repulsion to evidence the ideological character of social life in the capitalist metropolis. Disgust is how we come to know that there is something wrong, something lurking behind the indifference of the metropolis. It is through the rhetorical presentation of his repulsion that Engels lays bare the emotional fragmentation that follows from the saturation of social relations by capital. We are in this sense far off from Durkheim’s notion of a repugnance that precludes social analysis. To the contrary, disgust here appears to play a necessary role in revealing society’s true nature.
Engels’s account of the “offensive and repellant” nature of economic alienation establishes an antithesis between the two affective states. On the one hand there is “brutally indifferent” life in the metropolis—emotionless, artificial, monadic, and gray; on the other hand, there is the disgust of the bourgeois observer—unwanted but alive, human nature itself in revolt. Whereas life in the alienated city shuttles between the neutral and the negative, Engels here tacitly refers us to a full-throated wholeness or human essence that has not been drained of its vitality. However, I want to stress the new proximity that Engels establishes here between disgust and alienation, rather than their overt and conventional opposition. What is unique to Engels’s formulation is the implicit analogical relationship he establishes between his own repulsion and the alienation it diagnoses. Disgust is not only the proper, the natural, and the automatic response to the ravages of industrial capitalism, but it is also in a sense a reflection, however distorted, of the affective state of alienated life under this new mode of social organization.
If we fast forward fifty years to Simmel’s analysis of metropolitan repulsion, or a full century to Sartre’s existentialist nausea, we see that this analogy progressively takes on the status of a commonplace. Alienation, anomie, la noia, angst, gradually become entangled, if not fully interchangeable, with la nausée, the taedium vitae, attraction-repulsion, primary repression, and other states of low-grade negativity that explicitly take disgust as their basis. This is not so in Engels, for whom the diagnosis of alienation depends on disgust without yet being fully identified with it. But repulsion is now specifically named as the unwanted affective response through which the alienation of the individual under the modern social system becomes recognizable; the points of contact between the two states are already becoming clear. I am suggesting that, historically speaking, part of the work Engels accomplishes in this passage is to establish a discursive link between his own excessive feeling and the pathological unfeeling he diagnoses. If social theory wound up conceptualizing repulsion as a fundamental truth of human relationships, it was precisely because disgust had already been so closely associated with the analysis of social life. Indeed, the sociologist’s disgust already claimed an affective and epistemological authority over the experience of the observed, such that Engels’s repulsion comes to seem like the missing truth of Londoners’ alienation, a complement to their emotional deformation. The disgust of the bourgeois observer was the frame within which the experience of the observed could appear.
In order to satisfy the increasingly scientific aspirations of disciplinary sociology, this disgust had to migrate from the observer to the observed, from the method of inquiry to the object of study, without abandoning the posture of observational authority. From one angle, this process clearly resembles the rooting out of feeling from method that the fin de siècle sociologists called for: affect’s shift from criterion of truth to scholarly object. Social science cannot depend on the feelings of the observer—this much was already apparent to Engels, though he had not fully processed it. One can feel the method of analysis pulling Engels in two opposing directions, at once towards the burning evidence of unwanted feeling, and the cold truths of inhumane political economic structures, which themselves find a strange reflection in the demand for an anaesthetized social science.
But I also want to insist that there is something surreptitious about this transfer of affect, according to which the characteristic moral-visceral outrage of the bourgeois sociologist comes to be generalized as the innermost nature of the social itself. When Simmel writes that without “feelings of mutual strangeness and repulsion…we could not imagine what form modern urban life…might possibly take,” it would not be mistaken to say that he attributes what had been Engels’s vexed identification with the sight of industrial alienation to his own generalized definition of modern social relationships in the metropolis. From this perspective, feeling is not so much extracted from sociology as it is buried within it or projected onto the social domain—more concretely and directly here than in Wordsworth’s figure of the vomiting mill. Only a decade after Engels’s stated opposition between disgust and alienation, for example, Marx would turn to the language of repulsion [Abstoßung] in order to theorize the social antagonism that binds people to their class.
What could hardly have been meant as much more than a rhetorical convention rooted in uninterrogated beliefs about the grammar of sensation in Engels came to be inscribed as a core tenet of sociological and social theoretical discourse, as disgust towards alienation was slowly reconstituted as disgust as alienation.
“[T]here is no science,” Durkheim writes, in the passage with which I opened this essay: "Which at its beginnings has not encountered similar resistances. There was a time when those feelings relating to the things of the physical world, since they also possessed a religious or moral character, opposed no less violently the establishment of the physical sciences. Thus, one can believe that, rooted out from one science after another, this prejudice will finally disappear from sociology as well, its last refuge, and leave the field clear for the scientist" (Rules 40). Contra Durkheim, I have been arguing that the role disgust played in this process of rooting out emotional bias and superstition from the social scientific method cannot be explained straightforwardly in the terms of a progressive narrative—although it may at first blush seem to do just that. As our examination of Wordsworth and Engels has suggested, the genealogy of sociological attraction-repulsion can be made to hew closely to Durkheim’s proposed trajectory, according to which an emotion that had been erroneously taken as a “criterion of scientific truth” by the innovative but prescientific fumblers of the mid-nineteenth century was gradually transformed into an “object for scientific study” that could be shown to “have been shaped through history” at the century’s close.
But as I hope to have shown, this story of the hard-won isolation of social fact from subjective value raises more questions than it settles. Perhaps most crucially, we have seen precisely how difficult it is to disentangle fact from value within the structures of unwanted feeling that gave rise to modern sociology. To the contrary, the rhetoric of disgust would seem to suggest instead that certain features of social life can only become legible in the first place through the filter of the repulsion they inspire—that is, can only become legible as unwanted facts. And in this regard, the problem of disgust begins to look like a condensation of the basic problem of determining the composition of social scientific knowledge, as it related to what Weber referred to as the “hair-thin line” separating objective fact and subjective value. Weber thought it was the proximity of fact and value in the sociological domain that gave the field its unique character because he believed that all social phenomena depended on the prior positing of an underlying value that allowed them to become sensible and recognizable as phenomena in the first place. “The objective validity of all empirical knowledge,” he writes, “rests, and rests exclusively, upon the fact that the given reality is ordered according to categories that are in a specific sense subjective, in that they form the precondition of our knowledge, and that are based upon the presupposition of the value of that truth which empirical knowledge alone is able to give us” (Objectivity 137). The task that Weber sees falling to the social sciences is to explore these meeting points where the acts of valuation, which are the precondition for knowledge of the social world, allow for the production of knowledge itself.
What I have been arguing throughout this essay is that the function of disgust in the gradual and uneven distinction of the sociological from the literary domain represents precisely one of these hinges between value and fact, but one which in certain contexts has also been invested in the surreptitious disavowal of its own rootedness in subjective feeling. For with the unwanted fact of repulsion, the fact is constituted by the very strength of its empirical, sensory appeal; the fact that it is unwanted houses the fact that it is real. While from a certain perspective, disgust’s disturbance of the Enlightenment distinction between fact and value might be dismissed as irredeemably irrational, I suggest instead that precisely this disruptive power had an intensely generative effect on the entangled trajectories of literature and social science over the course of the nineteenth century. A literary history of disgust in the period (which would include but exceed the literary history of the city) that started out from Wordsworth’s vomiting mill would, however, look very different from the outline of the emergence of sociology and its disavowal of feeling that I have traced in this essay. Even the most insistently realist of literary texts depends on an implicit avowal of something like Weber’s point that the reality or truth of its world derives from the affective value with which it has been invested. Disgust held out to a great variety of nineteenth-century novelists and poets, as well as literary and aesthetic theorists, the promise of a medium for exploring the instability of the relationship between unwanted fact and negative value: a recurrent motif for Baudelaire, a plot device for Gissing—Walter Pater went so far as to assert that “the way to perfection lies through a series of disgusts” (103). For sociology, by contrast, disgust served as the uncredited source of a series of fundamental concepts and premises. Foremost among them was the very idea of the social life of the modern city itself: the rotten and fermenting city, the distended mill vomiting out its Malthusian hordes of alienated citizens. The need to be rid of the unwanted fact of the social was not merely a starting point for social analysis, but the affective logic according to which the basic objects of sociological discourse were initially rendered legible and distinct as objects rather than as experiences—the affective logic that, over the long term, gave rise to the birth of social theory from the spirit of disgust.