From my Ph.D. dissertation, "The Hedonics of Disgust"


I am from Baltimore, born and raised.

The cultural heroes of my hometown are a strange set.  They are outsiders and depressives, lovers of refuse, contemplators of atrocity, and curators of camp.  It was only after leaving that I came to realize how much the city had influenced me.

Foremost among Baltimore's cultural icons is the poet and critic Edgar Allan Poe.  While he scoffed at didacticism and allegory (a literary device about which "there is scarcely one respectable word to be said"), Poe is best known today for works containing strong didactic and allegorical overtones (The Tell-Tale Heart, The Raven).  His penchant for the gothic could verge on the maudlin:

Let the bell toll ! --- a saintly soul floats on the Stygian river ;
And, Guy De Vere, hast thou no tear ? --- weep now or never more !
See ! on yon drear and rigid bier low lies thy love, Lenore !

We are, nonetheless, proud to claim him as our own.  (While Poe was born in Boston and spent his life in several cities along the eastern seaboard, he did at least die in Baltimore, after taking the wrong train.)  The Baltimore Ravens remain the only football team named after a poem.

Next there is H.L. Mencken, newspaperman for The Baltimore Sun and sourpuss extraordinaire.  A satirist at heart, Mencken delighted in the well-placed jab (he dubbed the Scopes case "the Monkey Trial"), and relished the bile directed his way even more (it takes a special kind of man to publish an anthology containing nothing but criticism written about you, yet there it is, A Mencken Schimphlexikon).  His essay The Sahara of the Bozart, which laments the intellectual death of the South, is one of the finest examples of philippics in the English language.

Then of course there is the filmmaker John Waters: ironic, smirking, smutty.  Waters' path to legitimacy was paved with épater la bourgeoisie cinematic moments: a singing asshole, a couple crushing a chicken between their bodies during sex, a transvestite eating dog shit (and that's just one movie).  In memoirs, he deadpans, "If someone vomits watching one of my films, it's like getting a standing ovation."

The specter of John Waters hung particularly low over our town, perhaps because he was not dead.  In fact, he lived in my neighborhood, and I would sometimes see him at Eddie's supermarket, with his pencil mustache, squeezing peaches in the produce aisle.

One of the members of Waters' band of Dreamlanders was my art teacher in elementary school.  When I was eight, she tore up a drawing I made of people of all races holding hands under a rainbow, dismissing it as "too cliché."  I was forbidden from drawing rainbows in class again.  She also did not like the Madonnas I would paint (I went to an ecclesiastical school).  "Honey," she'd say, taking the brush from my hand.  "It's been done before."

By the time I was a teenager I'd graduated to harder stuff.  One day a flannel-clad slacker at the local video store (Video Americain, pronounced "Video Ameri-cahhhn") handed me a shopworn copy of Pink Flamingos.  "Try it. You'll like it," he said.

I came of age in the 1990s, an era of winking, self-deprecating enthusiasm for the idea that Baltimore was not merely awful, but phenomenally awful, inspirationally awful.  (Previous attempts by city officials to bill it as a place that could compete by normal standards of excellence were laughed off by its own citizenry; in the late 1980s, a citywide fleet of sky-blue benches with the motto "Baltimore: The City That Reads" were swiftly defaced: "The City That Breeds" or, for the darker humored, "The City That Bleeds.")  The American Visionary Arts Museum, a national mecca for outsider art, opened in 1995.  Popular and critically acclaimed television series Homicide, The Corner, and The Wire were all based on true crime books from this decade.

We were taught to love what was terrible about Baltimore, delight in it.  Every Tuesday my father would eat breakfast at Cafe Hon (est. 1992), a restaurant that embodies, and embraces, John Waters' vision of the city.  An 18-foot lawn flamingo looms over the door.  Inside, the walls are lined with tchotchkes, and waitstaff cultivate the Tracy Turnblad look.  True to form, the food is greasy and indifferent.  This is all part of its charm, of course; Cafe Hon, perhaps more than any other city landmark, capitalizes on the idea that Baltimore's central outstanding feature is its kitsch.

From my earliest years, I was steeped in the notion that sometimes things are so bad they are good again, that the terrible can be a source of genuine, posy-eyed joy.  Camp has market value, as does acid-tongued curmudgeonry (Mencken), and paranoid, absinthe-laced melancholia (Poe).  To think that pleasure only derives from the straightforwardly nice would mean leaving out a substantial piece of the human capacity for enjoyment.

I owe Baltimore, and its ragtag team of misfits, a great debt for this insight.

Debts are owed elsewhere, as well.

Ann Arbor, for all of her midwestern standoffishness and poly-seasonal winters, is home to a rotating set of smart, interesting people who don't quite know how they got there.  It is difficult to imagine how I would have survived here were it not for my friends and classmates, particularly the following excellent band of human beings: Plakias, Parkhurst, Garfinkel, DeSimone, Bartek, Demiralp, Armstrong, M. Meyer, and Carp.

I am indebted to my advisors and committee, both for their pedagogical guidance and for being tolerant of my desire to tackle unusual and difficult projects.  To Norbert, for giving me and my research interests a sense of belonging; Phoebe, for her priceless combination of warmth and crankiness; Randy, for boundless discussion and bottomless tea.  Special thanks are due to Rick and Dave, for taking me under their wing in my second year, even if we did not always see eye to eye (I still disagree with Dave's assessment that Elvis was the greatest singer of the twentieth century).

I must thank the research assistants who worked with me: Garrett Marks-Wilt, Lizzie Cushing, Allie Seekely, Jeff Chang, Liz Palmieri, Matt Gilles, Annalyn Ng, Sam Caronongan, Angie Trush, Deepti Joshi, Aubree Sepler, Nina Tocco, Yuching Lin, Sandya Simhan, Mohini Bhargava, Mehgha Shyam, Billy Diaz, May Chow, Alessandra Boufford, Meredith Dennis, Priyanka Bikkina, Elise Darling, Patrick Julius, and Andria Robins.

I would also like to thank the subjects who have participated in my studies over the past five years.  I cannot thank you by name, but I can thank you by number.  At last estimate is there were over 2,000 of you.  Thanks for being my guinea pigs.

I am grateful to my parents, who sacrificed to send me to good schools, and kept a house well-stocked with books and art supplies.  They exposed me to enough of Baltimore to be inspired by it, but not so much that I could never leave.

I owe a great intellectual debt to Paul Rozin.  As my thesis progressed, I was continually surprised to find so many of my plans already earmarked for further study in his papers.  He is also an excellent role model: his work is never boring, and unafraid of being weird or unpopular.  It's gratifying to see him being rewarded for this approach in the end.  This dissertation is dedicated to him, and to John Waters, whose marks on this work will be evident to those familiar with either oeuvre.

Thanks, finally, to previous generations of nerds who put together the Rackham-friendly LaTeX template, which was used to format this dissertation.