Death by Disgust

In Tristles Tropiques Claude Levi-Strauss mentions a questionable but symptomatic cause of death for native population during colonization:

“In was used to be called Hispaniola (today Haiti and Santo Domingo) the native population numbered about one hundred thousand in 1492, but had dropped to two hundred a century later, since people died of horror and disgust at European civilization even more than of smallpox and physical ill-treatment.” (Levi-Strauss, 1974, 75)

We would frame it today as death from depression and stress, probably, but this kind of claim does not sustain a critique for the reason that it could not be supported with hard scientific evidence: there is no way to create a chart comparing numbers of people who died from smallpox and physical ill-treatment, to sum it up, and compare to the numbers of those who died of horror and disgust.

The reason why I remembered it, however, is the passage in Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture which speaks to this Levi-Strauss’s fragment, even if in a roundabout way:

“War may be, as it was among the Aztecs, a way of getting captives for the religious sacrifices. Since the Spaniards fought to kill, according to Aztec standards they broke the rules of the game. The Aztecs fell back in dismay and Cortez walked as victor into the capital.” (Benedict, 1934, 31)

Unlike Levi-Strauss, Benedict does not ascribe here European white sensitivities to native populations, but her statement is questionable in a similar way because it seems to imply that Aztecs fell back in dismay not because they were overwhelmed with surpassing forces but because they encountered a fight which broke their warfare standards.

I have no doubt that the affects of the kind–such as disgust, dismay, repulsion, horror, contempt– took place and played a role in establishing a power balance in different regions, and in regard to those subjugated each of those affects was but another tool of obliteration.

Intimidation and fear are powerful weapons which lay at the core of terrorist strategies of conducting the war (and the word “terror” is fully embedded in “terrorism”).

I wonder what kind of research question might have been possible here. How exactly such affects shape social interactions and participate in the decline of native populations? This might be one way to look at it.


Benedict, Ruth. Patterns of Culture. Cambridge–Massachusetts, 1934.

Claude, Levi-Strauss. Tristles Tropiques. Translated from the French by John and Doreen Weightman. New York, 1975.

Affect, Pervasive and Elusive

What is affect? Affect circulates through different spaces, it is multifaceted and flips easily from one ridge to another: individual and collective, private and public, owned and disavowed, approximated and distanced, embraced and avoided. Affect is visceral, olfactory, visual, tangible, palpable. It is atmospheric and pertains to luminosity, pulsation, and texture. What is affect? Notoriously hard to define, whatever it is, it does not mean anything, rather, affect provokes, arouses, triggers, disappoints, vexes, throws off balance, enamors, and disgusts. Affect is a deeply embedded feeling, the feeling worked into the body, it is the way the body is broken down to the settings in which it operates; affect is a state of soul, mind, and gesture. Gregory J. Seigworth and Melissa Gregg define affect in following categories: “Affect arises in the midst of in-between-ness: in the capacities to act and be acted upon. Affect is an impingement or extrusion of a momentary or sometimes more sustained state of relation as well as the passage (and the duration of passage) of forces or intensities. That is, affect is found in those intensities that pass body to body (human, nonhuman, part-body, and otherwise), in those resonances that circulate about, between, and sometimes stick to bodies and worlds, and in the very passages or variations between these intensities and resonances themselves.” (Seigworth, Gregg, 2010, 1). The number of “key terms” emerging in this passage – in-between-ness, passage, intensities, circulation, resonances – map out the unsteady territory of affect in public imagination. Affect is like phlogiston believed to be emerging during combustion in the 18 century: “In general, substances that burned in air were said to be rich in phlogiston.” (Conant, 1950, 14). During combustion, object dephlogisticate. It is possible to be dis-affected as well. Similar to objects rich with phlogiston, bodies are “said to be saturated with affect,” and it’s the circulation of affect that makes affect evident.

Affect: Nostalgia and Loss

Nostalgia is always connected with a sense of loss (Stewart, 1988). An acute feeling of having lost something might not be rational, it does not depend on the consideration that the loss was imaginative, or if the object sensed as lost did not exist in the first place, or if this loss has affected the future in a positive way. The contemplating of ruins easily begets nostalgia and the feeling of loss.

The concept of imaginative loss explains why it is possible to probe the waters of nostalgia being in a place you have never visited before. The question whether one would experience a surge of nostalgia is the question of having a particular swarms of associations evoked. Nostalgia verges on the border of déjà vu, slipping into recognition: what has happened, would not be happening any more, regardless of how often it had been happening before.

Ruination is the byproduct result of loss, the fixed material consequences of loss. Attempting to reconstruct, what it was that was lost, that was being lost right now, all sorts of arbitrariness take place. A sense that history might have go in other direction is vivid. The functionality of ruination is such that ruination has the ability to produce the image of the past in our consciousness. This image is very appealing, full of allure, and has very little to do with the actual past. It is the invocation of the past, reflected upon the future.

“Hegemonic and resistant nostalgias, “middle-class” and “working-class” nostalgias, the nostalgia of a “mass culture” and the nostalgia of and for local, nameable places are a three-ring circus of simultaneous images in the arenas of life-style, spectacle, and loss. The angst-ridden modern city is replaced by the delirious surround of consumer capitalism (Jameson 1983). Nostalgia, like the economy it runs with, is everywhere. But it is a cultural practice, not a given content; its forms, meanings, and effects shift with the context—it depends on where the speaker stands in the landscape of the present.” (Stewart, 1988).

This landscape of the present is not given also, but it is fluctuant and fluid, glitters vaguely; and the subjectivity experiencing nostalgia is shifting in the depth of it, now directed at the object, now at itself, but mostly reflecting itself and preoccupied with itself, and the object, or perhaps surroundings, the agglomeration of objects, the untold and not easily detectable but delectable characteristic of which triggers the avalanche of falsified memories, the atmosphere, the luminosity, the texture, the shadow, the trembling, the rapture and the twitch.

Nostalgia is a feeling that one is likely to have as a side effect of relocation. In case when ubiquitous ruins denote the bygone that was there, the relocation is happening without the change of locus, with all the force of emotion composing the feeling of being lost, the pressing necessity of re-finding oneself in the changed conditions of life; the despair, the regret, and the hope. Thus ruins reframe the ordinariness, making it possible for everyday life to hide the huge caverns of nostalgia where you can slip any time. Any day turns out to be charged with nostalgia for the moment that has just past. Nothing is stable, the certitude of the world is profoundly undermined.