Grotesquery in Online Identity and Culture

Final Assignment for EDC Unit                                                                

Submitted 9th January 2011


Title: Critically analyse instances of grotesquery and the body grotesque manifest in online identity and culture.

The inspiration to consider instances and moments of the grotesque in online identity and culture emerged whilst undertaking the E-Learning and Digital Cultures unit, as this motif connects to the discourse of the destabilized, the unsettled and the other which surfaced as the unit progressed. Grotesquery and the body grotesque have the potential to contribute to the critical framework used to articulate the disquiet and unease that can develop when considering a range of implications for online cultural contexts. The formation of the grotesque as a cultural and literary trope was first introduced by the Michael Bakhtin, a cultural and literary critic, who identified in his literary analysis of Rabelais and His World patterns of representations which he was to call the grotesque. Bakhtin’s cultural and literary analysis cantered around texts of the Middle-Ages and Renaissance; a time when ideas of the ‘human’ and identity were not fixed but open, playful and fluid. At its core the grotesque focuses on the human body and the way in which the higher order potentials, such as nobility and spirituality are sharply contrasted with more material considerations and functions such as eating and drinking. Decay is perceived in the very moment of consumption as food and drink becomes waste; a reminder of the corporeal aspects of the human form which itself will decay following death. At the same time the motif of the banquet is shown to symbolise a defiance and temporary victory over death, as the body can be seen to consume the very world, signified by the food, that would consume it (in the grave). 

It highlights the cyclical pattern of life and death and life in death. The human body is shown to be always incomplete, requiring food for continued renewal and growth; ‘the grotesque body … 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.’ (Morris, 1991, 233) Online spaces and culture intersect with Bakhtin’s ideas in a number of ways; firstly, the virtual representation of the real self in an online environment, as unfixed, playful and unstable can be interpreted as a form of a digital grotesque body. Secondly, the grotesque implication of the cyborg, as the human body itself has the potential to be physically enhanced to ‘become’ something other, a hybrid which itself which can be read as grotesque. Finally, good use of Bakhtin’s ideas can be made to articulate the decentralisation and destabilization of the human body in a post-human world. These three ideas will be explored in more detail in the paper below.

The virtual representation of the real self in an online environment, as unfixed, playful and unstable can be interpreted as a form of a digital grotesque body. Online identities exist as a fiction of the self, a fragment, a prism that can be created and dispatched with ease. At any time a person can be maintaining multiple identities, pluralities of self; online identities are part of the very fabric of a digital culture. Although it is difficult to conceive given the non-spatial, non-physical properties of the digital world, it nevertheless equates to an expression of the material, as the real world subject creates an objective version of self. This subject/object division is an expression of the grotesque, as the object self does not embody the higher order functions (spiritualities etc.) of the real self, and as such has a freedom and liberation from the body actual. The object self is free to consume and be consumed in the digital environment. It is free to inhabit the infinite online environment as a digital presence at the same time as it is wholly dispensable.

Allison Muri’s article ‘Of Shit and the Soul: Tropes of Cybernetic Disembodiment in Contemporary Culture’ (2003) presents a useful summary of the academic debates that have transpired relating to embodiment/disembodiment drawing the conclusion that ‘there is apparently, neither birth nor decay in this marriage of calculation and angelic spirit: no offspring, no ageing bodies, no organs or secretions’ (p.75). This seemingly sterilizes the object self and removed the potential repulsive image of the human body banqueting and as a banquet itself.  However, this paper suggests that the digital grotesque centres on the seepage that exists between real world and virtual identities, and the interactions between the material-object-digital self by the real subjective self. Julia Kristeva highlights (1982, p.64) how Georges Bataille connects ‘the subject/object relationship’ into a ‘plane of abjection’ and in so doing links ideas of cultural abhorrence to the objectification of the subject. This notion connects more squarely to a discourse of the grotesque, as the ‘object’ other has qualities that are at best unsettling and at worse repugnant. The cycle of digital consumption is not physically manifest in food, wine and human waste, agreed there are ‘no organs or secretions;’ rather it relates to the emergence of the objective-self by the subject-self in the digital environment. The object-self has the power to exceed the physical limits of the subject-self. It can fly, it can change appearance; it can resist being assigned a gender etc. In so transgressing the countless boundaries that exist in the real world it can be seen to represent more than the body real, at the same time as, according to Bakhtin’s ideas of the grotesque, its very fabric represents lack and decay. It is always in the process of ‘becoming’ it is never fixed or stable, but is mutable and fluid. It can be dispensed, enhanced and recreated. In the grotesque view of virtual and real identity embodiment and disembodiment are not polarised opposites, but rather playful, albeit heartless, playfellows constantly enacting the process of ‘becoming.’

The centrality of the body to the notion of the grotesque is no more prevalent than in a consideration of the implication of the cyborg, as the human body itself has the potential to be physically enhanced to become something other, a hybrid which itself which can be read as grotesque. Reference has already been made to the links between the body and the consumption of food and drink resulting in human waste which act as a metaphor of the waste and decay of death which is central to the human condition and the ideas of the grotesque body. This fixation with consumption and waste has another connotation as it also connects to the physical boundaries of the body which can be seen to be broken through the processes of eating, drinking and expelling waste. The body’s boundaries are shown to be penetrable ‘eating and drinking are one of the most significant manifestations of the grotesque body. The distinctive character of this body is its open unfinished nature, its interaction with the world. These traits are most fully and concretely revealed in the act of eating; the body transgresses here its own limits: it swallows, devours, rends the world apart, is enriched and grows at the world’s expense’ (Morris, 1994, p.228). A clip shown as part of the film shows in the early stages of this E-learning and Digital Cultures unit highlights these material and biological aspects of humanity. YouTube Preview Image

In this clip the consumption of the world, language and even food by ‘meat’/humans is repugnant to the alien / cybernetic(?)/ non-organic forms; that organic matter should be intelligent, conversant etc. and unsettling to the aliens. ‘The limits between man and the world are erased, to man’s advantage’ (Morris, 1994, p.228), from the ‘alien’s’ world view they are witnessing an act of horror as meat is seen to be able to consume and manipulate the world around it. Yet it is this very process of consumption evident in the literature of the Renaissance and Middle Ages (and beyond) that inspired Bakhtin. The humans in this clip are not merely eating food in the diner; they are devouring, feasting and owning the world; ‘man’s encounter with the world in the act of eating is joyful, triumphant; he triumphs over the world, devours it without being devoured himself.

Similarly cybernetics has the potential to allow for grotesque consumption, for a body to connect, consume, and ingest technology. In the same way as food brings the world into the body and adds to its substance and mass, so too can technology add another dimension to the human form; ‘it is the mechanisms of uncontrolled growth that might offer an understanding of the breakdown of the integrity of the individual body on the one hand, and the restoration or prosthesis of the body on the other’ (Shields, 200, p.217).  However, the effects of a connection with technology can result in almost infinite change and metamorphosis and the potential manifestations of the body grotesque are infinitely increased. It could be suggested that the archetype  grotesque digital body would exist in an exaggerated and enhanced form that would delight in the disorientation and dis-ease caused as a result of the cybernetic connection indeed ‘exaggeration, hyperbolism, excessiveness are generally considered fundamental attributes of the grotesque style’ (Morris, 1994, p.232). Accepting this discussion it is reasonable to go onto suggest that all cyborgs have the potential to be grotesque, as the technological enhancements, seen or unseen, highlight the decay and limitations of the organic form they purport to augment. The image below is a possible example of digital grotesquery.

The additional ‘eye’ on the world, could be seen as excessive and/or an exaggeration of the body actual. The images capture another version of the world which can then be consumed by the gaze. However, this gaze is separated from the human form which hosts the digital eye, as it is made available as art for wider visual consumption. John Berger makes the point that ‘we only see what we look at. To look is an act of choice. As a result of this act, what we see in brought within our reach’ (1972, p.8). Yet it is the relationship between looking and seeing that is ‘played with’ by the third eye. There is something unnerving or uncanny about this digital enhancement as the biologically familiar is rendered unfamiliar; ‘in order for us to feel something to be uncanny, it must derive from a situation, object or incident that ought to feel (and usually has felt) familiar and reassuring, but which has undergone some form of slight shift that results in … a form of dis-ease’ (Armitt, 1996, 49). The purpose of the eye has been adjusted. It continues to capture images, but not for the benefit of the host who carries the eye. This ‘third eye’ differs from its biological neighbours in that it is not networked into a sensory and neurological system that processes interprets and encodes the images it receives in manner unique to the human receiver; its processing systems are significantly different and distanced from the eye. Its images are received and displayed as art. The distance between the eye and the images it captures exposes the spatial limitations of its biological cousins who have no such power to project the images it receives beyond the biological system to which they belong. Andy Clark makes the point that there is ‘nothing quite that special’ (2003, p.26) about the human mind and in this example it is clear that this digital eye is able to visually store and display more of the world for many more recipients. It is both playful and irreverent to the notion of the biologically complete and whole; ‘the cyborg is resolutely committed to partiality, irony, intimacy and perversity. It is oppositional, utopian and completely without innocence’ (Haraway, 2007, p.35). It is through a contemplation of this image that new discourses of digital grotesquery can be contemplated. The third eye itself consumes data and images it take from the world and encodes as a binary sequence for future reference. There are no limits to the amount of information that can be stored digitally and unlike the motif of the grotesque body ingesting ‘the world’ in a feast, there will be no outward sign of gluttonous consumption. The eye will not bloat or show any physical signs of the feast. Hunger is replaced by an infinite capacity that could swallow the world; ‘digital culture is intimately bound with cultures of consumption … all aspects of culture can be transformed into indistinguishable ‘packets’ of information’ (Hand, 2008, p.37). The human body and the ‘bodily cannon’ (Morris, 1994, p.235) to which Bakhtin refers has been cybernetically enhanced in a post-human world.

Bakhtin’s ideas of grotesquery and the grotesque body contribute to the discourse on the decentralisation and destabilization of the human body in a post-human world; ‘Whereas the ‘human’ has since the Enlightenment been associated with rationality, free will, autonomy and a celebration of consciousness as the seat of identity, the posthuman in its more nefarious forms is construed as an informational pattern that happens to be instantiated in a biological substrate’ (Hayles, 2006, p.160). These ideas on the ‘human,’ as articulated by Hayles were not fixed in the Middle-Ages and Renaissance eras and literatures that inform Bakhtin’s work. It is perhaps a sympathetic fluidity and unfixing that creates a resonance between the early modern period and the post-human world. The grotesque body belongs to the comic counter-culture that mocked, mimicked and laughed at the all-prevailing official orthodoxy of the Renaissance and Middle-Ages. It is a physical manifestation of the carnival; both as a tangible connection to feasting and excess that characterised times of carnival, as well as standing as an emblem for the relaxation of official rule and control that existed in times of carnival. In a similar way the authority of the body is challenged in a post-human world, as western biological, cultural and philosophical ideas of what it means to be human are deconstructed and reformed in a technologically informed world. The centrality of the body as the ultimate and only house of humanity is challenged ‘the posthuman view thinks of the body as the original prosthesis we all learn to manipulate, so that extending or replacing the body with other prostheses becomes a continuation of a process that began before we were born’ (Hayles, 1999, p.3). The post-human carnival is now been played out through the microcosm of the body. Established notions are been overturned and played with, such as the separation of the gaze from the eye discussed above. The grotesque potential for the body is extended, as it can now consume more of the digital world, at the same time as it is threatened, one day, to be consumed by the very same technology. This resonates with the earlier discussion about the significance of the consumption of food, which simultaneously signifies both the world that can be consumed by the body and a reminder that the body itself will be consumed by the earth, in the grave.

To conclude, grotesquery and the body grotesque offer a playful theoretical framework that can be usefully applied to a consideration of digital cultures. Grotesquery and the body grotesque are motifs of theories of the carnivalesque which delights in transgressing and subverting the established orthodoxy, even language which is replaced by motifs, metaphors and troupes (Mulvey, 1989, pp.170-76). As a starting point consideration was given to the body grotesque on as it applied to real vs. virtual identities. The discussion then considered the how the cyborg could be considered as a digital grotesque body using a real example of a ‘third eye’ to focus this discussion. Finally consideration was given as to how grotesquery and the body grotesque can contribute to debates and discussion about a post-human world.


Berger, J., (1972) Ways of Seeing, London: Penguin Books

Clark, A., (2003) “Natural-Born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies and the future of Human Intelligence” Cyborgs Unplugged, pp.13-34, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hand, M., (2008) “Hardware to Everyware: Narratives of Promise and Threat” Making digital cultures: access, interactivity and authenticity, pp. 15-42, Aldershot: Ashgate.

Haraway, D, (2007) “A Cyborg Manifesto” from Bell, David; Kennedy, Barbara M (eds), The Cyberculture Reader pp. 34-65, London: Routledge.

Hayles, N. K., (1999) “Towards embodies virtuality” from Hayles, N. Katherine, We become posthuman: virtual bodies in cybernetics, literature and informatics pp.1-25, Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press.

Hayles, N. K., (2006) “Unfinished Work: From Cyborg to Cognisphere” Theory, Culture and Society, pp.159-166, 23; 159.

Kristeva, J., (1982), ‘From Filth to Defilement,’ Powers of Horror, New York: Columbia University Press

Morris, P., (ed.), (1994) The Bakhtin Reader, London and New York: E Arnold

Mulvey, L., (1989) Visual and Other Pleasures, Hampshire and London: MacMillan.

Muri, A., (2003) ‘Of Shit and the Soul: Tropes of Cybernetic Disembodiment in contemporary Culture’ Body and Society, SAGE Publications, Vol. 9 (3):73-92.

O’Regan, S., (2007) They’re Made out Of Meat < > [date accessed the site 28th December 2010]

Shields, R, (2006) Flânerie for Cyborgs, Theory Culture and Society, pp209-220,23; 7-8.

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