- Black Grotesquerie
For Marci Blackman
The lost and the dead are not altogether absent.José Esteban Muñoz, Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics
To degrade an object does not imply merely hurling it into the void of nonexistence, into absolute destruction, but to hurl it down to … the zone in which conception and a new birth take place.Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World
[W]e need a new language of abstraction to explain this horror.Frank B. Wilderson, III, Red, White & Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms
1. A Sketch
Offered less to communicate the status of a gone thing than to instantiate a refusal, Marci Blackman's Tradition (2013) opens with [End Page 682] the word "Dead." Yet the person to whom the word putatively refers, Finest Coon, is not, in fact, dead. He hovers in a liminal space where dead bespeaks a psychic, social, civic, monetary, and metaphysical condition. The character Mabel, who pronounces his death, is actually the one who has returned Finest from its brink. Here, life and death are contingent, not permanent, impermeable states. "Dead" in Tradition is resisted forcefully, produced lovingly, massaged at once into being and again into something else. Moreover, dead is also always already bound up with racial blackness, with black beings who persist in altered forms of diminished life. Tarrying, then, with the dead, Blackman's novel is ultimately exploring the weary—and wearying—ways that black people live on, and not in making a political case on behalf of black life. Living on refers here to the persistence and permutations of life forms excluded from the proper domain of the living; or, even more plainly, living on refers to the actions of the dead.1
I invoke this moment in Blackman's novel to introduce a theory that I call black grotesquerie. Adducing women of color feminism's theories of the flesh and Mikhail Bakhtin's conception of the grotesque, black grotesquerie marks in contemporary black cultural production the deployment of the grotesque as an expressive mode that undermines the prevailing social order by confounding its representational logics.2 The concept reconfigures the terms of contemporary black struggle by rendering the boundary between (black) living and (black) dying porous and negotiable. The acceptance of catastrophe as the context for black being, the practice of living on in outmoded shapes, the appetite for the unbearable underside of enjoyment, and the determination to make last what has already been ruined are the signal features of black grotesquerie. As an expressive practice, black grotesquerie infuses the materiality of the black body with the textuality of the art object. Rather than merely signifying excess, dread, or decay, black grotesquerie delineates an aesthetic practice of contortion, exaggeration, substitution, inversion, corruption. Thus, my conception of this aesthetic mode explores disturbed form more than it does disturbing content.
My theorizing builds on Bakhtinian conceptions of the grotesque, which differ substantially from predominant notions in both common and critical lexica. We typically think of the grotesque as absurdity, ugliness, and monstrosity. Bakhtin posits the degradation of form, however, as the central principle of the grotesque:
To degrade is to bury, to sow, and to kill simultaneously, in order to bring forth something more and better. To degrade also means to concern oneself with the lower stratum of the body, the life of the belly and the reproductive organs. … [Degradation] has not only a destructive, negative aspect, but also a regenerating one.(21) [End Page 683]
For Bakhtin, grotesque aesthetics depend on the familiar cycles, contours, and capacities of human embodiment. The human body emblematizes the coextension of vitality and vulgarity, of destruction and regeneration, in both artistic practice and social organization. Bakhtin's conception of the grotesque derives from the materiality and the revelry of the carnival, which is a mode of sociality that undermines and parodies established sociopolitical systems. The grotesque is a process of revaluing and repositioning the debased elements of bodily, structural, conceptual, and worldly configurations. The black grotesque discomfits the world, disarranging and reforming the official order of things.
In its critical conception and artful enactment, black grotesquerie reflects black...