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ASU professor authors book on Shakespeare and disgust

October 28, 2022

Bradley Irish says disgust protects ourselves from harm

Webster’s Dictionary defines disgust as a “marked aversion aroused by something highly distasteful.”

It might be a ghost pepper that hits your tongue. A blood-spurting dead man in a Halloween haunted house. Or a response to societal injustices.

In his forthcoming book, “Shakespeare and Disgust: The History and Science of Early Modern Revulsion,” Arizona State University Associate Professor of English Bradley Irish examines the way Shakespeare used disgust in his plays and how disgust is not just a visceral reaction but a protective response as well.

ASU News talked to Irish about his book, which will be released in March.

Note: The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Question: How does someone get the idea to write a book about Shakespeare and disgust?

Answer: I’ve been working on emotions since my dissertation … which was on the various types of emotions in the early modern court. That became my first book ("Emotion in the Tudor Court: Literature, History and Early Modern Feeling"). It takes a different kind of emotion in every chapter and looks at how it works in the court and legal literature of the day. I started to think about how that initial work could be expanded to think about Shakespeare, which is the primary thing I teach. The more I would read of Shakespeare, the more my mind would go back to that initial work in my dissertation. That became kind of the foundation for the book.

Q: So, what did Shakespeare generally say about disgust in his writings?

A: Shakespeare found disgust to be a remarkably flexible tool that allowed him to consider ways that boundaries are both maintained and violated in a way that humans interact with one another. One of the ways disgust is theorized today is that it’s an emotion that is fundamentally concerned with regulation. It regulates the things that enter our body or come in contact with our body, and it allows us to distance ourselves from things that might cause us harm.

What’s really interesting is that scientists believe that this started as primarily a food-regulated mechanism. That’s why we associate disgust with the stomach and mouth. … In the process of cultural evolution, scientists believe disgust not only guards us against things that might cause us physical harm or physical damage, it also guards us against symbolically harmful things that might be harmful to our social body, not just our physical body.

That’s why we are able to feel disgust at ideas or disgust at violations of norms or disgust at immorality. So, when someone says I’m disgusted by an act of racism they really mean it. In fact, there’s evidence that suggests that when people see something in any domain of disgust that occurs, their stomach starts to tighten, their throat starts to tighten, even if it has nothing to do with food, as if they were going to throw up.

Q: That’s interesting. I never thought of disgust as a protective measure.

A: That’s because it tells us not to go any further. Scientists believe, and experimental evidence shows, we actually have an intentional bias toward disgusting things, which is a bit counterintuitive because we think that when we see a disgusting object, we want to turn away from it. But at the same time, what scientific experiments show is that we actually pay more attention to it. Basically, we are told by our body, “Wow, I’m having this response which says something out there might be bad for me and I need to get away from it. But even as I move away from it, I’m going to keep my attention fixed on it.” That’s why scientists theorize we like to watch reality shows where people eat gross things. Or some people like to watch horror movies.

Q: What’s an example from one of Shakespeare’s plays where he writes about disgust?

A: Shakespeare’s play "Coriolanus" is a play in which disgust is used as a marker of social class. It’s the symbolic boundaries between a noble character, a soldier, and he really has a disgust toward the common people. (Shakespeare) uses images of food, of animals, of disease, of corpses and hygiene … all these things form the disgust that allows him to basically metaphorize his indignation at these common people. He thinks that they are ungrateful, that they’re cowards, etc., etc. On the other hand, the people are themselves morally disgusted that Coriolanus has this attitude of looking down on them. Shakespeare got so much mileage out of using visual poetic images they are always sort of activating our vision of disgust.

Q: Writing about disgust had to be compelling for Shakespeare.

A: It’s quietly part of a real centerpiece of Shakespeare’s emotional universe because so many things touch upon it.

Q: Halloween is approaching. Given what you have told me, when people see something disgusting in a haunted house or a horror movie, should they be reviled by what they see or welcome the emotion?

A: They should be aware that their brain is encouraging them to take pleasure in it even as they are being told by part of their body that this is bad, this is something I need to be scared of. Scientists have suggested that this kind of aesthetic appreciation of disgust actually belongs to a different category, a larger category called benign masochism. The idea is, we can like ostensibly harmful things if we know we’re not really doing harm to ourselves. If I eat that hot pepper, I’m not going to die. So, I can enjoy the fact that my mouth feels like it’s on fire. And when you go to the haunted house, you can enjoy the fact you’re not really going to be killed.

MORE: Why are so many people delighted by disgusting things?

Top photo by iStock

Scott Bordow

Reporter , ASU News

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ASU's Venture Challenges helps volleyball player develop clothing line

October 28, 2022

Kate Fitzgerald's VBAmerica clothing available in campus stores

As soon as Kate Fitzgerald showed up for her conditioning workout Tuesday morning with the rest of Arizona State University’s beach volleyball team, assistant coach Paul Araiza asked her a question.

“You look exhausted,” Araiza said. “Can you take a nap today?”

“I was like, ‘No, I’m taking a nap Thursday,’ ” Fitzgerald replied. “And he started laughing at me.”

Such is life for a third-year student who is a varsity athlete … and is pursuing a major in biomedical sciences … and a minor in marketing … and is the student body athletic president … and is in ASU’s Tip of the Fork program … and, oh yeah, has her own lifestyle volleyball brand called VBAmerica, which debuted in ASU campus stores this week and includes T-shirts, hoodies, tank tops, hats, etc., for both men and women.


It’s a wonder Fitzgerald ever sleeps.

“If I’m lucky and I’m disciplined, I can get to the end of my day and have 30 minutes before bed to just decompress,” Fitzgerald said.

How Fitzgerald started her clothing brand is a story of need and inspiration, a father and mother’s help, grants from ASU’s Global Sport Institute and the J. Orin Edson Entrepreneurship + Innovation Institute, and a bedroom closet big enough to hold boxes and boxes of inventory.

It all began in the summer of Fitzgerald’s junior year of high school. She was playing on different club and high school teams and wanted to wear comfortable volleyball-related clothing that didn’t have a specific team or school name. The idea bounced around in her head for a couple of years but went nowhere — she was focused on her education. Then, in the summer of 2021, the NCAA adopted rules that allowed athletes to benefit from their name, image and likeness. The NIL rules, as they’re commonly called, brought Fitzgerald’s dormant idea back to life.

“I was actually in the car driving to California with my dad for a family vacation,” Fitzgerald said. “I was like, ‘Remember this idea I had? There’s still a market for it. It’s still a problem.’”

The problem, as Fitzgerald saw it, is that there wasn’t a generic lifestyle volleyball clothing line that family members, friends — anyone, really — could wear.

“The problem with playing volleyball is that you’re not always necessarily loyal to one team,” Fitzgerald said. “You rotate between high school and club and beach and indoor volleyball. So, the parents coming to all the games were like, ‘Yeah, I want to support my daughter, but I don’t have anything volleyball-related to wear.’”

Fitzgerald began designing the clothing on her iPad during the drive back home from vacation. She had no design experience, so the drawings weren’t exactly professional quality.

In fact, as Fitzgerald is asked about the drawings, she laughs at the memory.

“I honestly was just drawing fonts and saying, ‘OK, do we want a box around it? Do we want it in red? Do we want this font? Do we want that font?’” she said.

Fortunately, Fitzgerald’s father, Bobby, knows something about starting a business, having co-founded a series of restaurants. Bobby helped Fitzgerald file a trademark, set up a website and connect with a graphic designer, who turned Kate’s rudimentary drawings into a professional look.

At that point, it was ASU’s turn to help Fitzgerald turn her idea into a business. After meeting with ASU’s compliance office to make sure she wouldn’t be violating NCAA regulations, Fitzgerald got an email suggesting she meet with Jeff Kunowski, associate director of innovation programs for the Global Sport Institute and the J. Orin Edson Entrepreneurship + Innovation Institute.

Kunowski is a mentor in the Sun Devil Athletics’ Venture Challenges, which helps student entrepreneurs of small, sports-related startup companies.

“He told me, ‘I heard about what you’re doing. I’d love to meet with you and learn more,’” Fitzgerald recalled.

As soon as the two met, Kunowksi knew Fitzgerald wasn’t just a dreamer.

“She was a go-getter and just totally motivated to see this through,” Kunowski said. “A lot of times, through our different interactions with students and student athletes, you can tell who’s really just there to get a little bit of an introduction, and then you have those who are really vested in building something and taking advantage of the resources.

“From day one, Kate went above and beyond to schedule sit-downs, meet in person and ask all the right questions to understand what was available to her.”

Kunowski introduced Fitzgerald to a licensing team and helped her map out her business plan and build out the pitch deck she would present to the Global Sport Institute and the Entrepreneurship + Innovation Institute in an effort to receive grant funding.

There was just one problem with the pitches: They were scheduled for the same May weekend as the Pac-12 championships in Tucson.

“We had our game, and then I went back to the hotel room with my mom (Shelley),” Fitzgerald said. “I went in her room, practiced and put my computer on top of a suitcase so I could stand to present to the camera. I mean, technology is great.”

Kunowski recalled, “She was worried about being sweaty or out of breath and getting to the right place to do the pitch. We tried to work with her schedule as best as we could, and she got it done. She impressed the right folks.”

Fitzgerald was awarded $5,000 in grant funding from the Global Sport Institute, made her pitch again the next day for the Entrepreneurship + Innovation Institute and won an additional $3,000.

“Jeff and the Global Sport Institute has been a huge help in everything,” Fitzgerald said.

Fitzgerald said the money has been “life-changing.” She has used it to finish the licensing process at ASU and have inventory for pop-up events. At the 2022 AVP (Association for Volleyball Professionals) Phoenix Championships event in September, she sold $6,000 in VBAmerica gear.

The company is still a small family-owned business — Shelley stores the ordered inventory in Kate’s bedroom closet at the family home — and that’s perfectly OK with Fitzgerald.

She still wants to be a nurse.

She’ll just be one with her own clothing line.

Top photo: ASU junior beach volleyball player Kate Fitzgerald with the lifestyle volleyball clothing line she developed called VBAmerica. Photo courtesy of Kate Fitzgerald

Scott Bordow

Reporter , ASU News