“Dissmell” and Contempt

I thought I would get started with a post illustrating the most anti-social affect, “dissmell” or contempt. Dissmell is the brother of disgust–thus the coinage, the latter acting through the mouth and taste and the former through the nose and sense of smell. Both disgust and dissmell are “drive auxiliaries” serving to protect the organism from ingesting or contacting objects that are potentially noxious to its health and life. They are not affects strictly speaking. Rather, they have evolved from their original function of checking the hunger and thirst drives to act like affects about myriad objects and acitivites that have nothing to do with actual physical smell. Dissmell is the most distancing and rejecting of the negative affects, since it warns the organism at a distance (via the nose) to avoid the object out of hand. It is especially rejecting when combined with anger, in its unilateral and aggressive form of expression as contempt. The expression of dissmell or contempt declares the object of its disdain as “unfit for human consumption,” as Tomkins pithily puts it.

Our first example is from Frank Bruni’s column in the New York Times, a spot-on description of Sarah Sanders’ ideo-affective posture at press conferences.

It hit me this week, around the time when Sarah Huckabee Sanders was blithely seconding Chief of Staff John Kelly’s Civil War revisionism, that I missed Sean Spicer.

I missed the panic in his eyes, which signaled a scintilla of awareness that he was peddling hooey. I missed the squeak in his voice, which suggested perhaps the tiniest smidgen of shame.

He never seemed to me entirely at home in his domicile of deception; she dwells without evident compunction in a gaudier fairyland of grander fictions. There’s no panic. No squeak. Just that repulsed expression, as if a foul odor had wafted in and she knew — just knew — that the culprit was CNN.

The other affects at play here are Spicer’s involuntary affective display of fear (“the panic in his eyes”) and shame (“smidgen of shame”). Interestingly, Bruni focuses on the most important sites of innate affect: the face (his eyes in particular) and the voice (“the squeak in his voice”). Bruni captures perfectly, by invidious comparison, what makes Sarah Sanders such an unattractive human being: her overt expression of contempt for those she considers beneath her attention. Spicer’s vulnerability and sense of shame we can identify with. In contrast, contempt, as Tomkins notes, when it is directed at other human beings, is the most unappealling of the affects, and is used only sparingly in democratic societies, where solidarity and identification with others are core values. This is in contrast with hierarchical societies in which strict rules of deference and distancing play a central part in the social structure. Contempt, in Tomkins’ words, is “the mark of the oppressor.”

My second illustration is Raphael Behr’s column, “Brexit Rots Our Rights. How Can Theresa May Ignore the Stench.” Behr expresses in the strongest terms his “dissmell” with the reprehensible nature of Theresa May’s opportunistic political manoevrings. (Note that the proverbial expression “to be in good odour” is based on dissmell affect, as is the current expression “pass the smell test.”). Behr’s imagery evokes, interestingly, the same network of dissmell and disgust imagery that runs through Hamlet. In other words, “something is rotten” in the state of England and the Tory government right now, but May has turned a blind eye–or nose–to it.

Prime ministers are rarely judged on the power of their noses. The way they speak and listen attracts comment. They are praised if they have a common touch or strong vision. Smell is routinely underrated among the political senses, and yet I am increasingly convinced that deficiency in this department is Theresa May’s greatest weakness.

Not literally. I’m sure she can tell when the milk in a No 10 fridge is off. But she struggles with tests of political pungency. She did not catch vote-repellent whiffs emanating from her doomed election manifesto – the stale tang of foxhunting, for example. She has sidled close to Donald Trump, disregarding his offences against decency and democracy, without so much as a nostril twitch towards the American president. . . .

May and the Tories don’t seem capable of sensing when their policies are “off,” “repellent,” “stale,” like milk gone bad. May’s nose is so bad she “sidled close to Donald Trump,” “without so much as a nostril twitch.” In other words, she should have kept him at a distance, as someone of very questionable “political pungency.” Speaking of the immediate aftermath of the Leave vote, he continues with same evocative imagery.

There was something rancid in the air, and I wondered if the prime minister could smell it. This was not, I insisted, an invitation to change course on Brexit, nor a criticism of those who voted to leave the EU. Full-bore racists were a tiny minority. But it may, I said, be in the prime minister’s interests to show sensitivity. Somewhere on their liberation march, leavers trod in something nasty, and the new government should check its shoes. . . .

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