Disgust and challenges

In the most recent Stargate Atlantis episode “Missing” S03E07 there is an interesting scene that captures the relation between positive and negative affects, passive and active affections (capability), and the capacity to translate the contigency of a problem into that of a challenge. The plot, very briefly, involves a visit to New Athos by Teyla and Dr. Keller who soon find themselves on the run from a primitive tribe of warriors.

The dialogue below is of the scene the morning after they have spent in a hunting ‘hide’ (permanent, albeit ramshackle shelter).

Teyla Emmagan: You have not slept all night

Dr. Jennifer Keller: With people trying to kill us… and creatures crawling under the ground? [pause] …not to mention I’m starving…

[Teyla scoops some innards out of a ‘land octopus’ creature and presents them to Keller]

Keller: Not that starving.

Teyla: It will give you strength.

Keller: It will make me puke.

Teyla: You do not believe you are capable of eating it, and so you do not.

Keller: Noo, I think it’s disgusting and so I do not.

Teyla: I have a friend like you… afraid to challenge himself…

Keller: I’m not afraid of challenges. I signed up to be chief of medicine for an expedition to a whole other galaxy. That’s about as challenging as it gets, but eating gross food? Sorry, that’s where I draw the line.

Teyla: Fair enough.

[Keller looks at knife, reaches across, grasps some alien ‘land octopus’ innards, whinces, archs her head back and drops it into her mouth and chews]

Teyla: See? No puking.

Keller: Yeah…

The episode is an exploration of what the two women are capable. For Keller, the doctor, it is a physical and affective capacity to act in certain ways. For Teyla, the warrior/leader, it is a moral (in)capacity to maintain a (galactic) ‘humanity’ in the face of self-preservation.

Disgust is a negative affect that modulates one’s affections and therefore the capacity to act. Disgust (affect) and the (in)capacity to endure what is disgusting (affection) are isolated as separate in the dialogue, but they are actually the same event: the constitution of the Keller character. The negative affect does not change in the scene. Yet, Keller eats the innards, so what has changed?

In my dissertation I talk about this movement not in the context of the problem of hunger and the affections of disgust, but the socio-technical problems faced by enthusiasts and the complex affects of enthusiasm. I focus on the positive dimension of translating the contingency of a problem (above, puking/starving) into that of a challenge as the opportunity to reaffirm one’s enthusiasm. A challenge mobilises the positive affects of enthusiasm. A challenge, like a problem, has no determinate ending, rather they are two different ways of relating to the futurity of contingency.

Note, however, that Keller does not eat the innards until Teyla has given up trying to get her to eat. Keller asserts her autonomy and active good affections versus eating the innards when told, which would express her subjectivity according to her passive good affections to Teyla’s active good affections.

Disgust, then, is not simply a ‘bad’ affect, in that it originally inhibits Keller’s capacity to be nourished. Rather, the event of eating demanded a differential repetition of Keller’s relation to the world in the event of eating. The negative affect of disgust forced Keller to ‘rise to the challenge’ and combat the negative affect of disgust with the greater power of her own active good affections.

An intertextual joke is made earlier in the episode about the eating of innards. Keller says that this was her least favourite part of ‘Survivor’, a game show almost completely organised around the fantasy of relying on one’s own active affections. The events of subjectivity of the game show contestents are part of the larger event of the game show just as Keller is part of the larger event of the Atlantis expedition in the deigetic universe of the television program. It is the collective active affections of the ‘final frontier’ that enable Keller to express her subjectivity in such a way to endure the negative affect of digust with the greater power of active affections in rising to the challenge.