Prolegomena To any Future Discussion of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, Part 2: Or, On Laughing at Things “That Should Not Exist”


Take 2: Bakhtin on the “Grotesque”

In Rabelais and his World, written over the course of several decades but not published until 1965, Mikhail Bakhtin devotes a central chapter to “The Grotesque Image of the Body and Its Sources.” Focus on “banquet images” of “gross exaggeration and hyperbole,” Bakhtin searches for the “creative principle” at the heart of Rabelaisian excess. Bakhtin’s search leads him to the “grotesque”: fundamentally marked by “exaggeration, hyperbolism, and excessiveness” (303).

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Writing against the late nineteenth century literary critic H. Schneegan (author of  the 1894 study Ueschichte der grotesken satire), Bakhtin develops a theory of “grotesque laughter.” Laughter, for Bakhtin, is always caused by the confluence of pleasure and displeasure. What is specific to “grotesque laughter” is that its brand of displeasure is “caused by the impossible and improbable nature of the image,” which is then overcome by two forms of pleasure: the critique of power, and moral satisfaction (305-06). The “grotesque”‘s capacity to call power to account likely does not require much explication here, although the question of how the “grotesque” mocks power is by no means simple; we will return to it below in a discussion of Alenka Zupančič’s writing on the philosophy of comedy.  The question of “moral satisfaction” is hazier. What Bakhtin means, specifically, is that “grotesque laughter” is laughter at phenomena “that should not exist”  (306).

Bakhtin rejects Schneegan’s characterization of the “grotesque” as “exaggeration of the inappropriate to incredible and monstrous dimensions” (306). Such a negative interpretation of the grotesque is “radically erroneous.” To dwell on the “grotesque”‘s negative dimensions is to overlook its “essential aspects”: its ambivalence, and its origins in folklore (306-07). Schneegan sees the “grotesque” as the aggregate of so many individual lampoons and japes, failing to see it as instead “a negation of the entire order of life (including the prevailing truth), a negation closely linked to the affirmation of that which is born anew” (307).

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Referencing Engels, Bakhtin writes of dialectical materialism’s core notion–that changes in quantity become changes in quality–to propose the “grotesque” as the proper frame for revolutionary desires: in the “world of the grotesque, objects can transcend their qualitative and their quantitative limits, changing substance, outgrowing themselves and fusing with other objects” (308). Importantly, for Bakhtin, the “grotesque” is particularly appealing in its double-voicedness (here, the most familiar aspects of Bakhtin’s theorization of carnival pop up, along with the strains of theory that most speak to the ideological double-bind of life under Stalinism): the “grotesque” includes both the “official thought” of the state and the “nonofficial, popular-festive language of the marketplace.”

Against the fantasy formations of medieval theology, the “grotesque” thrusts into the realm of the aesthetic “the mighty material bodily element.” It is this corporeal intrusion, this exaggeration of the body’s parts and its functions that “uncrowns the entire monastery” (312). The “grotesque” is obsessed with the body and its limits. Of the features of the face, the “grotesque” poet emphasizes the nose and the mouth: she looks for “that which protrudes from the body” and “seeks to go out beyond the body’s confines” (315-17). The “grotesque body,” for Bakhtin, is “a body in the act of becoming”:

It is never finished, never completed; it is continually built, created, and builds and creates another body. Moreover, the body swallows the world and is itself swallowed by the world… This is why the essential role belongs to those parts of the grotesque body in which it outgrows its own self, transgressing its own body, in which it conceives a new, second body: the bowels and the phallus. These two areas play the leading role in the grotesque image, and it is precisely for this reason that they are predominately subject to positive exaggeration, to hyperbolization; they can even detach themselves from the body and lead an independent life. (317)

Of course, practically speaking, this means that the “grotesque’ is especially interested in “(e)ating, drinking, defecation, and other elimination… as well as copulation, pregnancy, dismemberment, swallowing up by another body—all these acts are performed on the confines of the body and the outer world, or on the confines of the old and new body. In all these events the beginning and the end of life are closely linked and interwoven” (317).

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Moving to matters historical, Bakhtin asserts that the “grotesque mode of representing the body and bodily life” reigned supreme in humanity’s earliest aesthetic and mythopoetic endeavors: for thousands of years, we thought and dreamed in “grotesque” ways (318). To return, in modernity, to the “grotesque,” then, is also to grasp at the species-being wrung out of us by the agencies of capitalist discipline. It is also to summon the powers of a language of mockery and abuse written out of polite society and formalized politics (318-19).

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In a discussion that resonates with the research of Norbert Elias and Michel Foucault, Bakhtin contrasts the “grotesque body” to the “new bodily canon”:

The new bodily canon… presents an entirely finished, completed, strictly limited body, which is shown from the outside as something individual. That which protrudes, bulges, sprouts, or branches off (when a body transgresses its limits and a new one begins) is eliminated, hidden, or moderated. All orifices of the body are closed. The basis of the image is the individual, strictly limited mass, the impenetrable façade. The opaque surface and the body’s ‘valleys’ acquire an essential meaning as the border of a closed individuality that does not merge with other bodies and with the world. All attributes of the unfinished world are carefully removed, as well as all the signs of its inner life. The verbal norms of official and literary language… prohibit all that is linked with fecundation, pregnancy, childbirth. There is a sharp line of division between familiar speech and ‘correct’ language (320).

In this new canon, the genitals, buttocks, belly, nose, and mouth cease to play the leading role. In the modern image of the individual body, the meanings of sex, eating, drinking, and defecation change: “they have been transferred to the private and psychological level where their connotation becomes narrow and specific, torn away from the direct relation to the life of society and to the cosmic whole” (321).

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When Bakhtin turns to the works of Rabelais, it is to locate in them grotesque energies and thereby forge a mode of properly political mode of reading literature. In Rabelais, Bakhtin finds vestiges of the “ancestral body” and a “grotesque conception of the body” that is interwoven with cosmic, social, utopian, and historical significance–“and above all with the them of the change of epochs and the renewal of culture” (324-25). Rableais’ poetics does not show the benighted people “how things really are” or induce shame or guilt: it reminds readers rather of collective powers and pleasures that were once a common treasury, and enables them to dream of a time when they might enjoy those powers and pleasures again. Perhaps more radically, Bakhtin reminds us that because language is a medium shared by elites and subalterns, it is always both the medium of power and the means of power’s undoing. The “grotesque” may be hidden, warned out, individualized: but it persists. It doesn’t go anywhere.

Perhaps that might have something to do with Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, as well.

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