PROLEGOMENA TO ANY FUTURE DISCUSSION OF HERE COMES HONEY BOO BOO, PART 3: “The suppleness of monstrosity allows for numerous interventions in the business of interpretations”

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The  way in which human fat, and especially fat gendered female, has represented economic accumulation and waste in post-Enlightenment western culture is a complicated narrative. Briefly, by the mid-nineteenth century, bourgeois Euro-American women were rigidly subject to a ‘sphere’ ideology that appeared to make their economic position absolutely distinctive, and distinctively that of material consumption, their mercantile  husbands’ circulatory role manifesting them as sheer absorption. Thus, when caricatural figures for what Catherine Gallagher refers to as ‘the fatted body of circulation’ would come to be looked for in the bourgeoisie, it was to a very specifically gendered fat body that these meanings were most ineffaceably attached. Dickens is close to the modern nerve with his authentic loathing for the fat female body: the utter and inalterable inability to be forgiven of precariously middle-class fat women like Flora Finching, seems to suggested a literal-minded image of political economy where the gibbous flesh of such women might carved directly from the narrow shanks of the smaller bodies–bodies of children, of the poor–in which Dickens saw himself.*

Take 3: Here Comes Honey Boo Boo also resonates with the long history of what Mary Russo calls the “female grotesque”:  representations of the female body as excessive and dangerous. In “Female Grotesques: Carnival and Theory,” Russo writes that  “making a spectacle of oneself” is a “specifically feminine danger—the danger of exposure.” Russo engages with the work of Mikhail Bakhtin, the subject of the previous post, inquiring into the gender politics of the “carnivalesque body”— issues of “bodily exposure and containment, disguise and gender masquerade, abjection and marginality, parody and excess” ––to develop a feminist theory of the grotesque.  Russo writes:

The reintroduction of the body and categories of the body (in the case of carnival, the ‘grotesque body’) into the realm of what is called the political has been a central concern of feminism. What would seem to be of great interest at this critical conjuncture in relation to this material would be an assessment of how the materials on carnival as historical performance may be configured with the materials on carnival as semiotic performance; in other words, how the relation between the symbolic and cultural constructs of femininity and Womanness and the experience of women (as variously identified and subject to multiple determinations) might be brought together toward a dynamic model of a new social subjectivity.

As in all reckonings with Bakhtin, carnival, and the politics of playful inversion, the analysis of the “female grotesque” arrives ultimately at the dilemma of what Herbert Marcuse called “repressive desublimation.” Is carnival not riven by “limitations, defeats, and indifferences”? Does it not, Russo asks, occupy a “complicitous place in dominant culture”? This is especially dangerous because grotesque representations of the female body carries the risk of redoubling the stigmatization of non-conforming women, or allowing them admission into the realm of the licit only on condition of performing inferiority.

Russo reminds us that the revival of Bakhtin’s theory of carnival was occasioned by the writing of anthropologists like Mary Douglas, Victor Turner, and Clifford Geertz, who “saw in the human body the prototype of society, the nation-state, and the city, and in the social dramas of transition and ‘rituals of status reversal’ evidence of the reinforcement of social structure, hierarchy, and order through inversion.” These structural models, essentially conservative in orientation, have unduly tilted analysis of rituals of transgression towards an obsession with elite recuperation. Russo reminds us that the “extreme difficulty of producing lasting social change does not diminish the usefulness of these symbolic models of transgression, and the histories of subaltern and counterproductive cultural activity are never as neatly closed as structural models might suggest.” As the “Lady Skimmington” of 1641 (an anti-enclosure riot in Wiltshire premised upon the subversive potential of male-female cross-dressing) suggests, the spectacle of the “female transgressor” remains powerfully resonant, and “the possibilities of redeploying this representation as a demystifying or utopian model have not been exhausted.”

Zeroing in on Bakhtin’s analysis of the politics of carnival and the potentials of the “grotesque body” with an eye to feminist concerns, Russo reminds us that Bakhtin’s focus on carnival in early modern Europe “contains a critique of modernity and its stylistic effects as a radical diminishment of the possibilities of human freedom and cultural production.” Rejecting the culture of modernity as “austere and bitterly isolating,” much like the official religious culture of the Middle Ages, Bakhtin seeks to recover the “joy and heterogeneity of carnival and the carnivalesque style and spirit,” in a manner “suggestive of a future social horizon that may release new possibilities of speech and social performance” (218). For Bakhtin, carnival’s “heterogeneity” derived from its engagement with the “protocols and styles of high culture in and from a position of debasement.” Like Burke, Bakhtin highlights the ways in which carnivals’ masks and voices “resist, exaggerate, and destabilize the distinctions and boundaries that mark and maintain high culture and organized society.” Politically, Russo writes, the implications are obvious: setting carnival apart from the merely oppositional and reactive, “the carnivalesque suggest a redeployment or counterproduction of culture, knowledge, and pleasure. In its multivalent oppositional play, carnival refuses to surrender the critical and cultural tools of the dominant class, and in this sense, carnival can be seen above all as a site of insurgency, and not merely withdrawal” (218).

Most importantly for our purposes, Russo emphasizes the centrality of Bakhtin’s analysis of Rabelais as “grotesque realism,” with particular attention to the “grotesque body.” This is the “open, protruding, extended, secreting body, the body of becoming, process, and change”; in opposition to the “classical body” (“monumental, static, closed, and sleek, corresponding to the aspirations of bourgeois individualism”). Russo notes that Bakhtin finds his concept of the grotesque embodied in the Kerch terracotta figurines of “senile, pregnant hags” (here we turn to a direct quote from Rabelais and his World): “This is typical and very strongly expressed grotesque. It is ambivalent. It is pregnant death, a death that gives birth. There is nothing completed, nothing calm and stable in the bodies of these old hags. They combine senile, decaying, and deformed flesh with the flesh of new life, conceived but as yet unformed” (RW 25-26)…” (219).

The resonances with the dialectics of socialist development are obvious here; what is troubling, from a feminist perspective, is the unproblematic use of the image of the pregnant hag, “loaded with all of the connotations of fear and loathing associated with the biological processes of reproduction and of aging.” Failing to “acknowledge or incorporate the social relations of gender in his semiotic model of the body politic,” Bakhtin’s “female grotesque” remains “repressed and undeveloped” (219).

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In her book The Female Grotesque, Russo broadens the discussion by bringing in a second “grotesque” tradition,  which syncs up with Freud’s notion of “the uncanny,” to complement and complicate Bakhtin’s carnival “grotesque.” The shift to the uncanny–which derives from the return of residues  of the world of infantile primary narcissism to the mature, ego-driven perceptual apparatus–signals a broader interpretive pivot that is of great relevance to our continuing discussion of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. The “grotesque,” we will argue, is not so much a style as a perceptual disposition. Here, we have come full circle to the arguments of Kenneth Burke. Recall that for Burke, the “grotesque” is a way of seeing. Its political efficacy depends upon its ability to prompt a perspectival shift in the viewer, listener, or reader; for this reason, it lives or dies as a deictic technology capable of reorienting attention. That is also why, for Burke, it is so closely tied to mysticism and so frequently found in moments of crisis.

To fully unpack the “grotesque” as a way of seeing, we will turn to the work of  Alenka Zupančič– that will require some detailed argument-parsing, and so is best left for the next post. Before we conclude this edition, however, I want to attend to a final source on the “grotesque” and gender from which I have greatly profited and which provides a transition to our shift in focus from style to reception: Jack Halberstam’s Bodies That Splatter. 

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In a great chapter on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, Halberstam looks at the slasher/splatter film “as precisely the location of the dismantling and reconstruction of bodily identities and also of spectatorial positions, gazes, and desires” (139). I really like this emphasis on “the reconstruction of spectatorial positions, gazes, and desires” as a political operation.

The slasher/splatter genre is very close to the “grotesque” in a variety of ways. First, if the “grotesque” is comedy minus the intention to amuse, the slasher/splatter film is the horror movie minus the intention to scare. Caught up in the “voyeuristic quest” to see “what lies below the skin,” the slasher/splatter filmmaker and audience member seek thrills that go far beyond spooking, startling, and sneaking up. Drawing on Carol Glover’s  Men, Women, and Chain Sawsand Freudian fantasy theory as reworked by Laplache and Pontalis and Judith Butler, Halberstam notes that the radical potential of the slasher/splatter genre lies in its offer of a variety of subject positions (especially that of the female victim) to the (presumed-to-be-male) viewer. But for Halberstam Glover does not go quite far enough. “The queer tendency of horror film,” Halberstam writes, “lies in its ability to reconfigure gender not simply through inversion but by literally creating new categories” (139).

Halberstam’s title, of course, is a play on Butler’s Bodies That Matter. Looking deconstructively for the inhuman others that haunt the construction of the gendered  “human,” Butler provides a framework for thinking about both the failure to be “properly” socialized and the violence of socialization in feminist and queer ways.

“In other words,” Halberstam writes, “improperly or inadequately gendered bodies represent the limits of the human and they present a monstrous arrangement of skin, flesh, social mores, pleasures, dangers, and wounds. The bodies that splatter in horror films are interestingly enough properly gendered ‘human’ bodies, female bodies, in fact, with all the conventional markings of their femininity” (35).

Deepening the discussion, Halberstam riffs on Glover in a passage that couldn’t be more germane to our project:

Glover also points out that “the horror film does have a way of coding monstronsity in ethnic terms as white trash, rednecks, or redskins… ‘If ‘redneck’ once denoted a real and particular group, it has achieved the status of a kind of universal blame figure, the ‘someone else’ held responsible for all manner of American social ills. The great success of the redneck in that capacity suggest that anxieties no longer expressible in ethnic or racial terms have become projected onto a safe target’ (135).

Halberstam: “This is an extremely important account of what happens to the whole category of racial monstrosity in American horror film… the expression of racial fear in a contemporary context has become inseparable from racism. This does not mean, however, that racial coding disappears from the horror film; rather it becomes… part of the class or regional makeup of the monster”  (142).

“The woman’s monstronsity and her relation to violence in the horror film changes profoundly the form of her gender itself. Gender is monstrous in the horror film and it exceeds even the category of human. The genders that emerge triumphant at the gory conclusion of a splatter film are literally posthuman, they punish the limits of the human body and they mark identities as always stitched, sutured, bloody at the seams, and completely beyond the limits and the reaches of an impotent humanism” (144).

Which might also not be irrelevant to Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.

* Michael Moon and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Divinity: A Dossier A Performance Piece A Little-Understood Emotion,” Discourse, Vol, 13, No, 1 (Fall-Winter 1990-91), 30.

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